The Modi debate: The baffling silence of Nitish Kumar

By Manoj Kumar

Patna: Silence is often golden but this one sure speaks more eloquently than words. While the 'Narendra Modi for PM' chorus is getting louder inside BJP and NDA, the arch enemy of Modi, JD(U) leader and Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, remains surprisingly muted. On previous occasions, Nitish would shout down any such talk and bring in the 'secular' question besides demanding that the BJP-led NDA announce its prime minister candidate immediately. He is also a contender for the top job in the 2014 general election.

Last week, senior BJP leader Yashwant Sinha broke the code of silence in the NDA leadership over the issue of prime minister by openly pitching for Modi. He also hinted that if Nitish had problems with that then JD(U) was free to break apart from the NDA. Since then other senior BJP leaders have started getting vocal about Modi. Sinha had thrown down the gauntlet, but the JD(U) has surprised political observers by not picking it up. The reaction from party president Sharad Yadav, spokespersons Shivanand Tiwari and Neeraj Kumar has been uncharacteristically mellow.

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. Image courtesy PIB

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. Image courtesy PIB

"Alliances are formed with great difficulty and BJP leader Yashwant Sinha’s statement is uncalled for in the context of alliances," said Yadav, who is also the convener of the BJP-led NDA. Tiwari said it was an internal matter of the BJP. "Let the BJP first decide its prime ministerial candidate and then we will discuss it in the NDA meeting. Right now, there are so many contenders for the PM’s post. There is no need for the JD(U) to react on it," he said. Kumar, a known Modi-baitor, reacted in a restrained and composed tone. "We are patiently watching the developments since a final decision on prime ministerial candidate has not been officially announced by the BJP," said Kumar.

Let alone the PM debate, in the run-up to the general elections, Modi is expected to assume a role that will pitch him in a situation of conflict with Nitish. The BJP appears to be working on strategy to elevate him as chairman or convener of the party’s Election Campaign Committee. It means Modi will remain in charge of party’s election affairs, coordinate with allies and travel across the country, including Bihar, to campaign for party candidates. This also means that he will have position superior to that of Nitish. The Bihar chief minister should be fretting and fuming at the prospect. What keeps him silent?

According to political observers, Nitish is in a spot of bother on his home turf and is more worried about arresting the dwindling popularity of his party than being ambitious about the prime minister’s job. His morale is low particularly after the widespread protests from the angry masses in the course of his state-wide Adhikar Yatra. At some places his car was attacked and he had to return from venues without addressing rallies. The situation had turned so bad that the police had to ban black dresses or anything black during his rallies. Sensing the adverse mood across the state, Nitish is more focused on quelling discontentment against the government.

Besides, political rivals lying dormant so far have become more vocal against him. Huge turnouts at the Parivartan Yatra of RJD chief Lalu Prasad and Bihar Bachao Yatra of LJP chief Ram Vilas Paswan indicate the growing disenchantment with the JD(U)-led government. The most common complains of the general masses are that the officials hardly entertain their grievances, treat them shabbily while bribe has got virtually institutionalised even as while Nitish is quite often seen defending his officials, instead of the masses who voted him to power. There have been several cases of police atrocity in recent times. However, Nitish is being increasingly seen to be on the side of the erring officers.

To make the matters worse, the BJP doesn’t seem averse to breaking away from the ruling alliance. If Nitish becomes too unpopular, it is going to hit the BJP’s electoral prospects too. Yashwant Sinha’s remark on the JD(U) could have been intended to a warning to the chief minister. It’s not clear yet whether Nitish sill harbours the big dream to lead the country. But for now, he will lie low.