Why is the NDA so disunited on the presidential poll? Why are two staunch long-term allies — the Janata Dal (United) in Bihar and the Shiv Sena – going against the BJP when it makes little sense to create dissonance right now when the UPA is on the ropes?
In both cases, it could be the Modi factor — and the possibility of an early poll — at work. JD(U) and Shiv Sena see threats to their future in Modi’s possible elevation after the Gujarat elections and they are making their moves right now.
Let’s analyse both the Nitish Kumar worldview and the Sena one in the context of the recent war-war over Kumar’s veiled attack on Narendra Modi and his party’s decision to back Pranab Mukherjee in the presidential poll. The questions being asked are:
Is this really an intra-BJP fight where people opposed to Modi inside the party are using Kumar to put Gujarat’s lion in his place?
Is this a Nitish Kumar ploy to prepare to ditch the BJP at some future date?
Is this a battle for the Muslim vote in Bihar, or a preliminary move in Kumar’s bid for the PM’s job in case of a hung house?
In any case, why start a fight right now when it is far from clear that Modi will indeed move to the centre after the Gujarat election?
The answers to these questions are maybe, maybe, yes and don’t know.
Maybe, Nitish is working in cahoots with some disgruntled elements in the BJP; maybe he is planning to ditch the BJP at some future date, if it suits him; sure, he is trying to retain and expand his Muslim vote base in Bihar; but it is fourth question of why now that is the big imponderable.
If Nitish Kumar wants to ditch the BJP and get a solo majority, he can probably do so even now since he is just about seven seats short of a majority in the Bihar Assembly. In an assembly of 243, Nitish’s JD(U) has 115 seats. There are six independents, one JMM and four Congress MLAs available for possible support.
But this would be risky – almost like BS Yeddyurappa’s constantly threatened BJP majority in Karnataka — as any small bunch of MLAs can threaten the government’s stability. As against this, the BJP’s 91 seats gives the government an overwhelming stability. Nitish’s success stands on the BJP’s broad shoulders.
The second reason could be pique. The BJP’s success rate in the last assembly election was 91 seats out of 102 contested; Nitish’s was 115 out of 140. Not bad, but not as good as the BJP. Is Nitish unhappy that a victory attributed to his charisma has benefited the BJP more? But even here, he has always maintained that he has cordial relations with the state BJP leadership. So there is no reason to rock the boat without a big enough reason.
The third reason could be that Nitish has sniffed a Lok Sabha election well before 2014. In this case, his manoeuvring makes a lot of political sense.
Let’s analyse two possibilities in this case: that elections will be held later this year; or Sonia may opt for a poll in 2013. In the first case, Modi can more or less be ruled out since he will be fighting the Gujarat battle first. There is no reason for Nitish to pick a fight with BJP right now. He has time to flag off his secular credentials later.
In the second scenario — i.e. elections in 2013 — there is a good possibility that Modi will, in fact, play a bigger role in the central BJP, even if he is not officially its PM candidate. If that happens, Nitish could lose a part of his Muslim vote in Bihar if he is seen as working with a party led by Modi. In this situation, he may be keen to distance himself from the BJP.
Even if elections are going to happen only on schedule — in 2014 — Nitish’s early skirmishes indicate that he has already staked out his position and announced his opposition to Modi. So if the BJP pulls out a Modi card in early 2014, he can snap the state-level alliance and do a Naveen Patnaik – who ditched the BJP just before the 2009 polls and won a majority all by himself.
Nitish Kumar’s calculated gambit suggests that he is preparing for the eventuality that there may be an unexpected poll in 2013 – and positioning himself for a shift in political stand just in case it happens. But he is unlikely to rock the boat right now, especially since Lalu Prasad and Ram Vilas Paswan are his sworn enemies. He has only the minuscule Congress applauding him from the sidelines.
In fact, it is the need to prepare for an early poll that may have prompted his decision to go his own way on the presidential poll. He is sending out two messages by doing this: that he is open to a Congress or UPA alliance, if needed; and that he is not tied to the apron-strings of the BJP.
A similar logic may be working with the Shiv Sena — which is an even closer ideological partner of the BJP, and one that even predates the NDA. Sena has no concerns on the Hindutva angle. In fact, Bal Thackeray’s crib is that the BJP is not Hindu enough.
However, the Sena snub to BJP on the presidency has more to do with the squabble for power between Thackeray’s son Uddhav and nephew Raj Thackeray. Bal Thackeray has backed his son, but Raj has built closer ties to Modi by explicitly visiting Gujarat and admiring Modi’s work there.
There is thus a clear possibility that under Modi, the Sena-BJP axis could shift decisively towards a Raj-Modi axis. In fact, soon after Sena announced its support for Pranab, Raj Thackeray put out this poser: “What sort of opposition is this if they are supporting the Congress?”
Both Nitish Kumar and Bal Thackeray are preparing for a realignment of forces in case Modi enters the picture or there is a mid-term poll.