Caught in a cleft stick: on Nitish Kumar's move to rejoin the NDA

Nitish Kumar’s move to rejoin the NDA could end up hurting him, as events in the past year show

Updated - July 12, 2018 12:26 am IST

Published - July 12, 2018 12:02 am IST

As anticipated, Nitish Kumar has decided to continue his troubled alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), at least for now. The Bihar Chief Minister had no option but to lump it, and as a Hindi newspaper picturesquely put it, it was a case of “ aage kuan, peeche khai ?” (fall into the well or fall off the cliff)

Mr. Kumar has indeed been in a state of perpetual quandary ever since he embraced Prime Minister Narendra Modi in July last year. The Bihar Chief Minister, who up until then had held Mr. Modi in contempt and bitter enmity, said the Prime Minister and his party were preferable to the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD). He savaged the RJD, at the time his partner and a constituent of the Bihar Mahagathbandhan, as “corrupt and criminally-inclined”.

Changing winds

Yet, in this one year, the BJP has done all it could to deeply embarrass Mr. Kumar. Today, it seems unstoppably on a mission to wreck the one thing closest to his heart: his often reiterated vision of a secular, multi-faith India. On the other hand, the RJD, lately helmed by Tejashwi Yadav, the party’s rising star and an angrier version of the now-jailed father, Lalu Prasad Yadav, has unambiguously rejected all suggestion that he reconcile with Mr. Kumar and facilitate his return to the Mahagathbandhan.

In many ways, the Assembly seat of Jokihat, falling in Bihar’s Araria Parliamentary constituency, sums up all that is going wrong for the Chief Minister. His party, the Janata Dal (United), or JD(U), recently lost two State Assembly by-elections, one of which was Jokihat, a seat it had held through four Assembly elections, two in 2005, one each in 2010 and 2015. Jokihat has a Muslim population of over 70%, and the JD(U)’s successive victories seemed to affirm Mr. Kumar’s claim that he practised inclusive politics regardless of where he was situated, within the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) or in opposition to it.

The ‘MY’ factor

Mr. Kumar’s short point: His philosophy and convictions overrode who he was in alliance with, and his voters, Muslim or Hindu, had an innate understanding of his ability to navigate ideological contradictions without losing his moral compass. Significantly, of the JD(U)’s four victories in Jokihat, three had come by defeating the RJD whose voter base is formed by the iconic MY (Muslim-Yadav) acronym. By way of comparison, Mr. Yadav is that rare politician who, even in the face of extreme adversity, has not cohabited with the BJP, which explains the ‘M’ part of his MY constituency. Mr. Kumar in contrast had spent 17 years with the BJP before dumping it in 2013, outraged that Narendra Modi had been assigned to lead the NDA. If between 2005 and 2010, the JD(U) thrice won Muslim-majority Jokihat as an ally of the BJP ( in 2015 it won as part of the MGB), what changed in 2018 that it lost the same seat? The only change from 2005 to 2018 is Mr. Kumar’s return to the NDA, but now with Mr. Modi as Prime Minister. Expectedly, the Modi factor turned Jokihat-2018 into an acid test for the JD(U), a fact reflected in the heavy deployment of State ministers for the campaign. The Chief Minister’s own pitch was around his years of service to the Muslim community. None of this mattered in the end, and with Yadav Junior harping on the JD(U)’s betrayal, the RJD candidate, Shahnawaz Alam, won the seat by over 40,000 votes. It didn’t help that the JD(U)’s candidate had serious cases against him.

Ties with the BJP

Mr. Kumar’s previous aversion to Mr. Modi was premised on a perceived difference between him and the earlier generation of BJP leaders such as Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani. This despite their shared belief in Hindutva and the fact that each had witnessed serious sectarian violence under his command of the party. As BJP president in 1990, Mr. Advani had led the Ram rath yatra which has been correctly judged to be the forerunner of the poisonous politics that has today enveloped and polarised India.

Mr. Vajpayee was the Prime Minister and Mr. Modi the Chief Minister at the time of the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat. Mr. Vajpayee initially held Mr. Modi responsible for the violence and publicly advised him to follow Raj Dharma (righteous justice). But in a U-turn thereafter, he implied that the pogrom was retribution for the Godhra train carnage. “ Kisne lagayee aag ?” (who lit the fire?) he asked at the BJP’s national executive meet in Goa on April 12, 2002, echoing Mr. Modi’s own citing of Newton’s law of action and reaction.

Nonetheless, in the larger public perception, and especially in the eyes of the BJP’s regional allies in the NDA, Mr. Vajpayee was a middle-roader, a gentle, compassionate leader wedded to the tenets of Raj Dharma. In 2005, Mr. Advani attempted to mitigate his Ram temple legacy by visiting Pakistan and praising Mohammad Ali Jinnah, a transformation which immediately made him acceptable to the liberal constituents of the NDA.

With Mr. Modi’s advent, the cosy arrangement between the BJP and its allies broke. Mr. Kumar apprehended a danger to his proposition that he could be secular even while in an alliance with the Hindutva BJP. Addressing the State Assembly after breaking with the BJP in 2013, he insinuated that Mr. Modi was antithetical to the ‘idea of India’ which was his own guiding philosophy. Mr. Kumar had almost till the end pushed for the more acceptable Mr. Advani to be made the NDA’s prime ministerial candidate.

In July 2017, Mr. Kumar swallowed his pride and returned to the NDA on Mr. Modi’s terms. The RJD’s alleged corruption was one reason for the switch. But the other, by his own admission, was Mr. Modi’s emergence as the only national leader of consequence. However, events since then have severely tested the Chief Minister’s belief that he had made the right choice and the alliance would not hurt his secular image or dilute his commitment to minorities and the most deprived castes, including Dalits. In his recent address to the JD(U)’s national executive, Mr. Kumar spelt out the bottom line. His stand on the three evils, corruption, crime and communalism, remained non-negotiable.

On the ground

The question, though, is: How would he reconcile his own ideals with the starkly different scene emerging under Mr. Modi? The nation-wide spate of gau rakshak-related lynchings, the rabid speeches and actions of Central ministers and the violence on Dalits, not to mention the BJP’s shrill insistence on building the Ram temple, have all combined to bring the fringe to the mainstream. The economic scene has turned dismal with surveys recording a slight but perceptible dip in Mr. Modi’s popularity. In Bihar, the sympathy factor is with Mr. Lalu Prasad Yadav, jailed and sentenced cumulatively to several years in different corruption cases. His son’s fiery speeches have firmed up the RJD’s MY base even as there are indications of the Mahagathbandhan gaining from a MahaDalit consolidation via alliances with Jitan Ram Manjhi’s Hindustani Awam Morcha and Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party. This is not what Mr. Kumar bargained for.

P.S.: Before he rejoined the NDA, Mr. Kumar was the favourite to lead the Opposition in 2019. Today he has to be thankful merely to save his place in Bihar.

Vidya Subrahmaniam is Senior Fellow at The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy. E-mail: vidya.subrahmaniam

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