This is as direct a challenge to Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s prime ministerial ambition as it could get. It is hardly surprising that it comes from bete noire Nitish Kumar, JD(U) leader and the chief minister of Bihar. There’s a history of bad blood between the two and now Nitish has given it a definite direction. It has to be direct confrontation from now on, no more shadow-boxing.
Coming weeks after Modi virtually bulldozed the BJP and the RSS leadership to submission and established himself as the most powerful leader in the party, Nitish’s move is loaded with serious political ramifications for the NDA, which has a realistic chance of coming back to power in 2014. If matters precipitate, it could leave the formation split in the middle with the BJP’s interests seriously compromised.
“The leader of the coalition should have secular credentials and liberal frame of mind…He should be someone who has absolute faith in democratic values…In a multi-religious and multi-lingual country like ours, the leader should not have rough edges in his personality,” he said in an interview to The Economic Times. Although he did not mention Modi, the hint is too unsubtle to miss. His statement sums up the ‘secularists’ many grouses against Modi in entirety.
The Gujarat chief minister has been into some deft political manouvering in recent times to position himself as the party’s obvious choice as the prime ministerial candidate. He has managed to neutralise his potential challengers in the party and roped in bankable allies—the Biju Janata Dal and the AIADMK—to his support. He is expected to shift to the national stage after the Gujarat elections later this year.
There are indications that he is working to a plan. It is possible that he has already factored in the possibility of the absence of the JD(U) in the NDA in case he guns for the top job. The BJD and the AIADMK would more than make up for JD(U)’s numbers. He has also been keen on the BJP’s progress in Bihar where the party is relatively better placed among all states where it is in a coalition government.
He has been silently preparing the tactical road to a confrontation with Nitish. The Bihar chief minister, too canny a politician not to catch the drift in Modi’s moves, has decided to make it an open fight. He demanded that the NDA declare its prime ministerial candidate before the 2014 elections. Interestingly, he was backed by the Shiv Sena. The Sena has a grudge against Modi for his proximity to Maharashtra Navnirman Sena chief Raj Thackeray.
“The PM should be like Atal Behari Vajpayee, someone who is acceptable to everyone,” he said in the interview. He also made it clear that the choice of prime minister has to be a collective decision of the NDA partners. The Shiv Sena supported the view. “I agree with Nitish that the decision has to be of the NDA collectively and not the BJP alone. All allies like the JD(U), Akali Dal have to be on board,” said senior Sena leader Sanjay Raut.
The intention is clear. Nitish does not want to give the BJP the leadership position when the NDA sets about choosing its prime ministerial candidate. It is directed at scuttling Modi’s chances. A gaggle of allies could easily nullify the latter’s chances of emerging as the preferred candidate. It is possible that the Bihar Chief Minister would work furiously now to rally other NDA partners behind him.
What happens if Nitish and the JD(U) stay firm on the demand for declaration of candidate before 2014? It promises a rocky ride for the BJP in the run-up to the polls for sure. It could also lead to realignment of political parties with ‘secularism’ as the peg. The only party that would be watching the developments with glee would be the Congress. These could offer some hope for its rapidly dipping prospects in the elections.