Nitish vs Modi: Why the star chief ministers are at war

It is not for nothing that Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has chosen to put the future of his coalition government at stake on the issue of who should be the National Democratic Alliance’s (NDA) candidate for Prime Minister’s office in 2014. After all, it was the same issue — or the same man, to be precise — that earned him a clear majority in the last assembly elections in his home state.
 
But Nitish’s stand has fuelled speculations over his motive to raise the secular PM issue at this juncture. Political observers believe that his anti-Modi stance is a well thought out strategy to keep himself in the reckoning for the Prime Minister’s post in the event of a fractured mandate in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. If the polls result in a hung House, Nitish might emerge as the consensus candidate for the anti-NDA front, which may include the Congress and the Left.
 
Though Nitish has categorically denied harbouring any ambition to be the Prime Minister, he could very well emerge as a viable candidate in a hung Parliament even though his party may not have a sizeable number of MPs. Given his clean and pro-minority image, Nitish will have little problem garnering support — perhaps even from outside — of the Congress and the Left, in case both the NDA and the UPA fail to get a majority.
 
This perhaps explains why Nitish has insisted on knowing the identity of the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate at the earliest. He apparently does not want to be caught off guard if Modi takes over as the face of the NDA just before the next parliamentary elections, which is already being speculated in political circles. He apparently wants to explore alternate political avenues before the JD(U) finds itself in a lurch with Modi as the candidate.
 
Nitish, after all, knows that rather than a slew of welfare schemes for the minorities, it was his no-nonsense stand on the Gujarat chief minister over the years that earned him the overwhelming support of the Muslims in last year’s assembly polls.
 
In 2009, Nitish had cancelled a dinner at the eleventh hour that he had organised for the visiting BJP leaders, who were in Patna to attend their party’s national executive meeting. He had done so in protest against the publication of a photograph in a newspaper advertisement that had shown him hand-in-hand with Modi.
 
The advertisement, which was purportedly placed by some Bihari supporters of Modi based in Gujarat, had irked Nitish so much that he not only cancelled the dinner, but also went on to return a cheque of Rs.5 crore, which the Modi government had sent for the chief minister’s relief fund in the wake of the devastating 2008 Kosi floods. Since he assumed power, Nitish has also barred Modi from campaigning in any elections in Bihar.
 
This has obviously brought him closer to Bihar’s Muslim electorate. Political observers agree that it was Nitish’s master-stroke of keeping Modi away from the state that had helped the NDA win a staggering 206 seats in the assembly. Ironically, Nitish’s treatment of Modi had also helped the BJP, which won 91 seats out of the total 102 that it had contested in the previous assembly polls.
 
State BJP leaders weren’t happy with Nitish’s decision at the time, but the party’s candidates clearly benefited from the chief minister’s stand. Out of the 54 minority-dominated constituencies with more than 20 per cent population of the Muslims, the saffron party’s candidates won 30 seats — roughly 33 per cent of the total seats won by it in the polls.
 
In Baisi constituency of Purnia district, which had 69.06 per cent of Muslim electorate, BJP nominee Santosh Kumar won the election defeating his rivals from the RJD and the Congress, who belonged to the minority community. In Pranpur and Kadwa constituencies, which had Muslim population of about 50 and 45 per cent respectively, BJP candidates Vinod Singh and Bhola Roy were elected.
 
Still, Nitish will have to take a calculated risk if he decides to go solo in future elections because of the BJP’s existing support base, especially among the upper castes. Even in the last assembly election, the difference in the vote share between the NDA and the combined opposition was only around three per cent — that too when the RJD-LJP combine and the Congress had chosen to contest separately. If these parties reunite and fight the next polls together, similar to what they successfully did in the 2005 Lok Sabha polls and won 29 out of 40 seats from Bihar, Nitish might find the going tough.
 
Any erosion in his existing vote bank may well help Lalu and Co. to bounce back to power in Bihar. However, the JD(U) leaders have said that the party would not compromise on the issue of Modi and secularism — with or without power.
 
The future game plan became evident as the two coalition partners moved a step closer to breaking off their 16-year-old alliance over the ‘secular Prime Minister’ issue.
 
“It does not matter whether we are in the NDA or outside it. We will not compromise on the principles on which JD(U) had joined the alliance in 1996,” the party’s national spokesman Shivanand Tiwari said. “We are not even bothered if the Bihar government falls on this issue.”
 
The Bihar BJP has also hardened its stand. State party president Dr C P Thakur saying that the coalition was not a ‘majboori’. “It is a coalition of friendship between the JD(U) and the BJP,” he said. “But if the JD(U) breaks off the alliance, it will not make a difference to the BJP.”
 
Moreover, the war between the NDA allies has also given the opposition parties in the state a chance to hit out at Nitish. LJP president Ram Vilas Paswan wondered why Nitish had not resigned from the Atal Bihari Vajpayee cabinet after the Godhra riots.

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