On Modi it is Nitish’s ego, not ideology, that is the barrier

The shadow of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi just doesn’t leave Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. The break-up of his 17-year long alliance with the BJP over the issue of Modi’s leadership has clearly not chased away the specter of BJP’s presumptive Prime Ministerial candidate. That is because the real point of difference between the two men is not ideology or politics, but ego.

Not once in his 40 minute address at the third edition of Network 18’s Think India dialogue in New Delhi on 7 August did he mention the Gujarat Chief Minister by name. But between the lines, he tried to score at least two points against his rival Chief Minister.

Nitidh Kumar. PTI

Nitish Kumar. PTI

For one, a set of professionally made power point slides (so Narendra Modi in style), highlighting Bihar’s impressive achievements in social and physical infrastructure played along with the Chief Minister’s speech. Unlike Modi, however, Nitish did not refer to the slides directly in his speech. He probably just wanted to show he was capable of similar gimmicks but did not wish to copy Modi entirely.

Later in his speech, Nitish could not resist an indirect dig at Modi when he said that while there is no bar on dreaming, “People dream even in the day," he said, "But to rule India from Delhi a person needs a temperament that is democratic, a broad mindset, belief in inclusiveness and inclination towards the development of backward states." Nitish could almost have been describing himself.

Nitish Kumar was forced to confront the Narendra Modi comparison in the Q & A conducted by Network 18 Founder and Editor Raghav Bahl. (Watch it here) Nitish chose to dodge the facts and statistics that Bahl presented comparing his tenure in office as Bihar CM( between 2005 and 2013) and Modi’s tenure in office (between 2001 and 2013).

The statistics were not unflattering to Nitish. In terms of the growth of state expenditure, Nitish’s Government performed better in education, sanitation and agriculture.

The Gujarat government under Modi performed better in health, rural development, irrigation, floods and energy. In terms of growth in per capita income, the statistic is identical for the two states: Gujarat has seen an approximate 3.5 times increase in its per capita income since Modi took office. Bihar too has seen an almost identical 3.5 times increase in its per capita income since 2001 (Note: Nitish took office four years later, in 2005).

If Nitish should get the benefit for achieving nearly the same multiple, Modi deserves credit for raising it from a much higher base. The fact is that both Gujarat and Bihar, for different reasons, are celebrated success stories, not just in India but also internationally. But Nitish continues to deny that Gujarat has had inclusive growth.

Nitish’s claim, repeated at the Think India Dialogue Q & A, that he took a principled stand based on ideology (to break from the BJP) rings hollow. He did not resign from Vajpayee’s NDA Government at the time of the Gujarat riots in 2002. He is even on record praising Modi’s abilities as a chief minister in 2003. Modi has not become communal since then. If anything, he has moderated his strident Hindutva and focused on governance and issues like federalism so dear to Nitish Kumar. The only difference is that, unlike in 2002-03 the time when he was sympathetic to Modi, Nitish Kumar is now an equally successful Chief Minister. His ego doesn’t allow him to play second fiddle to Modi.

Nitish insists that he doesn’t bother about individuals but doesn’t explain why he dropped the BJP then. Nothing has changed in the party’s ideology since Modi’s elevation to campaign committee chief. Nitish’s implicit argument then is that Modi’s elevation may resurrect BJP’s contentious core agenda (Construction of Ram temple, Abrogation of Article 370 and Uniform Civil Code) is hollow. Modi isn’t even talking about those.

Nitish dislikes Modi because his ego forces him too. The cynical political calculation that he will be able to shore up the Muslim vote in Bihar by taking a strong anti-Modi stance may also be a factor but it is no doubt second to ego. With the BJP on his side( even with Modi at the helm), Nitish would have scored more seats than he will now all by himself.

Unfortunately, this isn’t only about Nitish. In Bihar, the BJP’s ministers played a crucial role in delivering good governance. At the Centre, a combined Modi-Nitish model would be an attractive alternative to the UPA. Nitish is weak in subjects like industrialization and urbanization – he stumbled his way through these at the Think India Dialogue  – but he is strong on social development. Modi’s Gujarat is relatively less emphatic on human development but terrific on industrialization, urbanization and infrastructure. A pity that Nitish’s ego got in the way of a potentially unbeatable pairing.

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