Naveen Patnaik gained handsomely from breaking with the BJP. It is time Nitish Kumar showed the same daring.

The Nitish Kumar-Bharatiya Janata Party shadow-boxing appears to have faded into the backdrop — at least for now. For close to a fortnight, the Bihar Chief Minister and his political partner sparred and warred, giving the impression that the relationship was going over the precipice. But just as the audience braced itself for the final, heart-stopping moment, when Mr. Kumar was expected to do a Naveen Patnaik on his ally of 14 years, he stopped, weighed the situation and pulled back from the brink.

To anyone familiar with the Nitish-BJP chapter of Bihar's political history, the tepid ending is hardly likely to have come as a surprise. This is not the first time Mr. Kumar has fulminated against the BJP, nor will it be the last time he does so. The Janata Dal (U) has long been a candidate for exiting the National Democratic Alliance, and seemed close to following Mr. Patnaik's Biju Janata Dal ahead of the 2009 general elections. But that did not happen. Mr. Kumar stayed on to fight another battle, and presumably will fight many more battles — unless it dawns on him that sometimes a single dramatic decision can achieve what a lifetime of laboured steps cannot.

Of course, the Bihar and Orissa circumstances are far from being identical. Caste and class composition variations aside, the Bihar Chief Minister is made very differently from his Orissa counterpart. The western-educated, elitist Patnaik showed stunning daring in breaking up with the BJP, his partner in the State and at the Centre since 1998. Forget that the bravado was at odds with his affable, mild-mannered nature. To most people incredulously watching Mr. Patnaik in superhero-style action, he seemed intent on political suicide. No one who studied the electoral map of Orissa could find any reason for him to win as outrightly as he eventually did.

What obviously gave him confidence was his own incredible track record. Mr. Patnaik's is a dazzling, if somewhat under-recognised, story. The genial son of Kalinga warrior Biju Patnaik entered politics to instant success and stardom, which was surprising considering his English-speaking, affluent background. But remarkably, he never once tasted failure in the years thereafter. Between 1998 and 2009, he won two State elections in a row, besides picking up the majority of seats in three consecutive elections to the Lok Sabha.

Mr. Patnaik did achieve all of this in partnership with the BJP. However, unlike in Bihar, where the BJP was a force on its own, the party in Orissa owed its all to Mr. Patnaik. Consider the BJP's electoral record prior to the alliance: No seats at all in the 1984, 1989, 1991 and 1996 Lok Sabha elections, and negligible presence in the Assembly during the same period. Once the alliance was in place, the BJP's fortunes soared skyward: Of the 9 Lok Sabha seats allotted to it under the 9-12 seat-sharing formula, it won 7 in 1998, all 9 in 1999 and again 7 in 2004. Of the 63 Assembly seats allotted to it under the 63-84 formula, the BJP won 38 in 2000 and 32 in 2004. The BJP's vote share increased in the Lok Sabha from 9.5 per cent in 1991 to 19.30 per cent in 2004. In the Assembly, it went up from 3.56 per cent in 1990 to 17.11 per cent in 2004.

Mr. Patnaik deduced, and correctly too, that without the BJD propping it, the BJP would slide back to its pre-alliance status. In May 2009, as Mr. Patnaik wrapped up his twin victories in the Lok Sabha and the Assembly elections, his former partner crashed to zero seats in the Lok Sabha and just seven in the Assembly.

In retrospect, the Chief Minister clearly knew what he was doing. Yet at that time there was little in the statistics to suggest a gargantuan BJD victory. In a triangular contest, it is a given that the advantage rests with the party with the largest share of votes. In Orissa, this distinction was held by the outwardly down and out Congress. When Mr. Patnaik gave the BJP the heave-ho, this is what he was faced with. In the Lok Sabha: BJP-19.30 per cent; BJD-30.02 per cent and the Congress-40.43 per cent. In the Assembly: BJP-17.11 per cent; BJD-27.36 per cent and the Congress-34.82 per cent. A certain addition to the BJD's vote share consequent to the BJP's departure made sense. But no one could have reckoned that the BJD would increase its vote share by 7 percentage points in the Lok Sabha (37. 2 per cent) and by over 11 percentage points in the Assembly (38.86 per cent).

There was something in the verdict for other followers to take note. Mr. Patnaik's personal popularity, his clean image and the absence of a credible rival in the Congress were all points in his favour. But these still did not satisfactorily explain the size of his victory. The gap between victory and landslide was explained by only one thing. His decisive action post-Kandhamal anti-Christian killings. When he broke up with the BJP, he became a hero for more than just the Christian community.

It is possible to question the Chief Minister's motives. After all, he cohabited with the BJP for over a decade, and showed no particular remorse at the time of the Gujarat 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom. But whatever Mr. Patnaik's reasons for dumping the BJP, the important thing is that he carried conviction with his people. Unlike Mr. Kumar, whose mood swings vis-à-vis the BJP have been showcased for all to see, Mr. Patnaik exhibited no theatrics while in a relationship with the BJP. But once he decided he had had enough, he despatched the BJP in a swift, surgical operation that at once unsettled his opponents and raised his profile among his voters. In the public perception, he was a leader willing to stake his career for a principle.

History offers proof that fortune favours the brave. M.G. Ramachandran, Indira Gandhi, V.P. Singh, and even Lalu Prasad, all reached iconic heights because they dared to walk their own individual paths. Will Mr. Kumar eventually pick up the courage to shed the Hindutva baggage and be his own man? His past tells us that he will not but there is enough in his present to suggest that he can and he must.

Mr. Kumar appears not able to forget that he has reached where he has after a long, bitter struggle marked by setbacks and failures. Rewind to 1990. Between Mr. Prasad and Mr. Kumar, the latter was the smart one. Armed with an engineering degree and already an MP, Mr. Kumar was friend and adviser to Mr. Prasad during the 1990 Bihar Assembly election which launched Mr. Prasad's extraordinary career. But, as it often happens in politics, the disciple completely outperformed the guru. Mr. Prasad's impish charm and riveting rustic act brought him a fan following so huge that there was no longer any need for Mr. Kumar. Frustrated, Mr. Kumar took his Samata Party (later JD-U) to the BJP's door, entirely unmindful of the Janata Dal's secular-liberal moorings.

Formed in 1996, the Samata-BJP alliance achieved a fair degree of success in the 1996 and 1998 Lok Sabha elections, securing 24 and 30 seats out of a total of 52 from Bihar. In 1999, the alliance hit the jackpot with 41 seats.

But in the Assembly, the alliance was not so fortunate, resulting in a long and tiring wait for Mr. Kumar, who wanted nothing more than the chief ministerial chair. This happened in 2000 but humiliatingly for Mr. Kumar, he was in office for all of nine days, not being able to prove his majority. Around this time, Mr. Kumar's opponents began to joke about his jinxed fate. An aide of Mr. Prasad would fondly tell journalists that he had read Mr. Kumar's horoscope and he saw no sign of fame or fortune there. Indeed, the high office eluded Mr. Kumar even after the landmark February 2005 election, which saw the Lalu-Rabri Devi twosome exit the scene after holding sway for 15 long years.

Mr. Kumar's dream finally came true in October 2005. He became Chief Minister and with that came name, fame and fortune — all in ample measure and for the very deserved reason that under his helmsmanship Bihar emerged from the dark to show signs of hope. Honour upon honour followed — television “man of the year” awards and high approval ratings. With Mr. Kumar manoeuvring to forge a new coalition of the OBCs, the Most Backward Classes and sections of Dalits and Muslims, the JD(U)-BJP alliance swept the 2009 Lok Sabha polls. A post-poll survey by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies placed Mr. Kumar right on top with the highest approval rating for any Chief Minister.

There can be no better time than this for Mr. Kumar to act. He can either do a Naveen Patnaik and trigger a vote consolidation in his favour — even the BJP's forward caste voters will likely vote for him in the event of a BJP-JD(U) rupture — or he can sit and make his little caste calculations and forever continue his attack-and-retreat charade.

Correction

The twelfth paragraph in the above article says that the Samata-BJP alliance achieved success in the 1996 and 1998 Lok Sabha elections, securing 24 and 30 seats out of a total of 52 from Bihar. It should have been 54 seats from Bihar.

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