Cracks in NDA as Nitish corners BJP on Modi

If politics is one elaborate game of bluff, Janata Dal (United) leader Nitish Kumar's ultimatum to the Bharatiya Janata Party to reveal its hand - on the question of naming Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi as its prime ministerial candidate -  amounts to calling the BJP's bluff.

The JD(U)'s formal adoption of a political resolution insisting that the BJP declare its candidate sufficiently in advance of the elections, and in any case by the end of the year, denies the BJP  the luxury of keeping its options open and compels it to either gamble on Modi (and risk a possible crack in the NDA alliance) or "play safe" by downplaying Modi (and risk alienating the party's hardcore support base).

Going by initial indications, it appears that the BJP is conflicted on this issue. One section within the party clearly resents the sniping from Nitish Kumar, and his somewhat audacious attempt to influence the BJP's choice of its leaders, and is calling upon the party to bet big on Modi. According to media reports, this section brims with the untested optimism that with Modi as its candidate, the party can look to gain as many as 200 Lok Sabha seats  in 2014, should therefore not yield to Nitish Kumar's blackmail.

Nitish Kumar and Narendra Modi  AFP

Nitish Kumar and Narendra Modi AFP

And although the BJP's initial response has been to tell Nitish Kumar off for the "unfounded inferences against... Modi", and although it is evidently activating its party unit in Bihar to prepare to contest the next election in Bihar on its own, it is far from persuaded by the excessively optimistic what-if scenarios painted by Modi bhakts in the party.

Political circles are abuzz with chatter speculating on Nitish Kumar's game-plan in drawing a line in the sand in respect of Modi's candidature so early in the election cycle.   His own party's national secretary Shivraj Singh has a rather interesting insider account of Nitish Kumar's motives. In this interview, Shivraj Singh suggests that for all of Nitish Kumar's protestations against Modi on the ground of "secularism", the real reason may lie in his vaulting personal ambition to be Prime Minister.

"He is bargaining with the BJP to be made PM," says Shivraj Singh. "Already he has a standing offer that he will be named as Deputy Prime Minister, but he wants more." And to realise that ambition, Nitish is simultaneously negotiating with both the Congress and the BJP, he adds.

And, in fact, Nitish Kumar is fearful that the Enforcement Directorate will launch an investigation into the fund flows to the JD(U), given that the party received - both on the record and off it - contributions from individuals and nations that are "enemies" of India, alleges Shivraj Singh.

But in even measure, Nitish Kumar knows that if he breaks away from the BJP, he will be marginalised in the same way that HD Deve Gowda was in Karnataka, adds Shivraj Singh.

Nitish Kumar's p0int about the potency of political symbols - as exemplified by his remark about the "topi" and the "tilak" - may have reeked of identity politics. But in fact, it reflects one reality of Indian politics - that symbols matter. In an interview to Madhu Kishwar, though, Gujarati Muslim businessman Zafar Sareshwala argues that the criticism of Modi on this count is somewhat unfair, given Modi's outreach to Muslims in Gujarat. In fact, Sareshwala notes that even the episode surrounding Modi's declining a "skull cap" from a Muslim leader during his sadbhavana fasts last year is characteried by media disinformation.

"That controversy over the skull cap was nonsense," says Sareshwala. "I don't know how media can give importance to such issues and distort them so badly." From an Islamic perspective, he adds, the skull cap has no importance. "You go to any Arab country, you won't find a single Muslim wearing a skull cap during namaaz." Even so, he said, he asked the Muslim leader who had purportedly offered a skull cap to Modi (and had reportedly been turned down) what happened on that day. " He told me, Modi ne aise koi utaar nahi di, bola topi mat pehnao, lao shawl de do green wali. (It is not as if Modi removed the skull cap from his head. He just said: don't put a skull cap on me, give me that green shawl you have for me.)

Political analysts have pointed to Nitish Kumar's comments on Modi and Gujarat in earlier times, which contrast with his virtual veto on Modi today, as illustrative of the JD(U) leader's hypocrisy.

Right after the BJP's electoral victory in 2002, the same year as the riots, Nitish Kumar challenged the suggestions that communal polarisation was instrumental in the BJP's victory. Congratulating the BJP and its allies at the Centre, Nitish Kumar had then said that the people of Gujarat "were aggrieved with the kind of image painted outside the State and hence reacted in this way."

Later, in January 2005, when the UN Banerjee committed submitted its report on the Godhra train burning of 2002, which had set off the riots, Nitish Kumar said that the UPA government at the Centre "should know they cannot take advantage of the Gujarat riots again and again."

That Nitish should now resort to the same point that he criticised then surely counts as hypocrisy, but that's the nature of politics. And if he is singing a different tune today, it's because Nitish Kumar calculates that he has options, despite political analysts' claim that the JD(U) needs the BJP in Bihar rather more than the other way around.

As this editorial observes, Nitish Kumar's options outside the NDA fold are "freighted with untested variables", particularly since the early optimism about his ability to provide good governance in Bihar is draining out slowly.

For the BJP, however, such calculations are irrelevant. Nitish Kumar's ultimatum "frames the urgent challenge it can no longer avoid or deny. In a time of coalition politics and government, it musst get down to dealing with the fallout of having as its undeclared PM candidate someone who is seen as a polarising figure with a homogenising project."