For the past two months, India’s powerful Left-liberal Establishment has been in a state of dejection on account of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi.
First, following his third consecutive election victory in Gujarat last December, Modi’s tag of untouchability was ceremoniously cut off. Corporate India, diplomatic missions and particularly the media which had hitherto shunned him, now joined the aspirational classes in seeing him as a possible saviour, a leader whose steely determination could enable India to realise its full potential in a globalised community. For the past month, Modi has carpet bombed the country with his infectious “India can do it” message. He has certainly found many new converts but, more important, he has aroused considerable curiosity in parts of India that hitherto had only a hazy idea about the man. In the process, he has galvanised the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rank-and-file and given them a new-found political purpose.
Second, contrary to a preconceived notion of what constituted Modi’s appeal, the Gujarat Chief Minister has focused exclusively on the twin themes of economic development and governance. True, his quasi-Thatcherite message of a minimum but purposeful state has been contested. But despite the criticisms of the “Gujarat model,” Modi has set the terms of an emerging debate. He has carefully steered the focus away from his earlier reputation as an icon of sectarian politics and into bread-and-butter issues — themes where he clearly outscores the Congress’s would-be challenger Rahul Gandhi.
It is in this context that a nervous Establishment has breathed a sigh of relief at Bihar Chief Minister’s robust intervention at the Janata Dal (United) convention last Sunday. In devoting almost his entire speech to the importance of a Prime Minister with unblemished “secular” credentials and a more inclusive development strategy, Nitish Kumar unambiguously expressed his big “No” to the idea of Modi as a prime ministerial candidate of the National Democratic Alliance. In short, as a long-term ally of the BJP, Nitish resumed the debate on Modi as a possibly divisive figure, a man who couldn’t carry both the pugree-wallas and the topi-wallas .
That Nitish’s tirade against Modi stemmed from his long-standing belief that the latter’s presence in Bihar would be a liability is well known. With Muslim voters accounting for more than 16 per cent of the electorate, Nitish was mindful of the Muslim antipathy to Modi. A Modi-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), he believed, would lead to aggressive Muslim voting to defeat anyone associated with the BJP, a situation that could potentially benefit his main rival Lalu Yadav. Nitish has also believed that if he was perceived as the man who punctured the Modi balloon, it would lead to Muslim voters seeing him (rather than Lalu Yadav) as the great champion of the community. And, if the Rashtriya Janata Dal’s Muslim support was substantially eroded, it would make the JD(U) the dominant party in Bihar, much like the Biju Janata Dal in Odisha. Nitish was in effect attempting a socio-political realignment that would either nullify his dependence on the BJP or even allow him to break with it altogether.
In his private negotiations with the BJP, the Bihar Chief Minister has steadfastly maintained that he values the NDA and that he would have no problem if the BJP chose a leader who is more in the Atal Behari Vajpayee mould. Other JD(U) leaders have stated that the party is completely agreeable to L.K. Advani being given another throw of the dice in 2014.
On the face of it, this may appear to be a case of a coalition partner counselling the BJP against a decision that could potentially be inimical to his local interests. However, it is not as straightforward as it may seem. There are enough grounds to believe that Nitish’s public disavowal of Modi and his implied threat to quit the NDA was a consequence of his belief that his intervention would muddy the waters for the Gujarat Chief Minister and, in the process, leave the BJP deeply divided. It is a matter of conjecture whether Nitish was actually egged on by some BJP leaders to be assertive in his rejection. But there is no doubt that it was silently welcomed by those BJP leaders who are uncomfortable with the idea of Modi. The needle of suspicion invariably points to one individual.
In politics it is impossible to anticipate every outcome. Nitish, it would seem, grossly overestimated the magnitude of the misgivings over Modi inside the BJP. The rapidity of the BJP’s sharp rebuttal of what it saw as gratuitous advice may well have taken him by surprise. Equally, it is unlikely he anticipated the sharp reaction of BJP karyakartas who are convinced that their best hope for 2014 is Modi.
A large part of the BJP rank-and-file anger against Nitish may well have been emotional, but it is worth remembering that the BJP has always depended on emotions for political motivation. In 2005, it was the emotional antipathy to Advani’s comments at the Jinnah mausoleum that led to the titan being displaced.
Nitish’s anti-Modi utterances have had the same impact. First, it forced the BJP leadership to overrule the do-nothing leaders and come out strongly in defence of Modi. In short, it once again reaffirmed Modi’s status as first among equals. Second, Nitish’s December deadline has egged on the more enthusiastic sections of the Modi fan club to demand an end to the ambivalence over the choice of the BJP’s public face for 2014. It is becoming increasingly clear to all the BJP stakeholders that any attempts to deny Modi his overriding role will lead to a grassroots revolt. Finally, Nitish’s Sunday speech which was preceded by many sniper shots directed at Modi, has vitiated BJP-JD(U) relations to the point of no return. It may prove extremely difficult, if not impossible, to prevent a formal parting of ways in Bihar in weeks rather than months.
Maybe this is what Nitish actually desired, since it gives him a clear 10 months to forge a realignment of forces in Bihar. But no realignment can be one-sided. There are forces in Bihar that could make the outcome of a triangular contest in a Lok Sabha election terribly uncertain. The implications of trying to derail Modi on the strength of a sectional veto may have its own logic that could even override entrenched caste loyalties.
(Swapan Dasgupta is a political commentator.)