If Nitish Kumar did not make his choice now, he could not re-enter the NDA later on and hope to be counted in as a prime ministerial possibility whenever the chance arises, says N Sathiya Moorthy.
Though Bihar’s JD-U Chief Minister Nitish Kumar may have declared that no one can challenge Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the parliamentary polls of 2019, if there is anyone in sight to do so it could well be Nitish himself.
For now, Nitish Kumar has seemingly referred only to challenges to Modi’s leadership from outside of the BJP-NDA, of which he has once again become part.
But what if the NDA does win but the BJP is not able to make up the numbers on its own? In theory at least, such possibilities could emerge even before Elections 2019, for the collective NDA leadership to look around for options.
It looks far-fetched just now, but so did the BJP-NDA defeat in 2004. The Congress is worse off now than in 2004, but there are parallels from the past that the BJP-NDA leadership cannot but recall for its own benefit.
Long before 1996 elections, the fate of the ruling Congress under ‘reformist’ Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao had been sealed. The BJP hoped to make it with relative ease than any time in the past, but it was not to be.
The people of India wanted the Congress out, but they also thought the BJP was not up to expectations as yet.
Thus came the Janata Dal-United Front experiment in 1996, even though the voter at the very start knew well that they could not be expected to provide a stable government.
Yet, until after the elections, pundits and pollsters alike would not give the JD-UF a chance, just as they would not do so with the Congress-UPA in Elections 2004.
The Indian voter did not turn the BJP way until after the ‘Chennai declaration’ of 1998, when they resolved to put ‘controversial issues’ of the Ayodhya-Hindutva type in cold storage.
If Narendra Modi became BJP-NDA’s prime ministerial candidate in 2014, it had been written into the script more than a decade earlier.
Those in the know at the time knew that it would be Advani for prime minister in 2004 and 2009. For the 2014 polls, the BJP-NDA had a tricky formula. It would be Modi if the BJP was confident of independent victory, and Nitish Kumar as NDA prime ministerial nominee otherwise.
Thus, Modi could not be faulted if he went ahead and challenged the leadership for his turn when Advani failed himself and the party in two successive polls of 2004 and 2009. Credit should also go to Modi for keeping his counsel to himself on both occasions.
Though he might have jumped the gun by not taking the NDA in general and Nitish otherwise into confidence ahead of the 2014 polls, post facto, he proved himself and the BJP right, by sweeping the polls and getting the party a majority for the first time ever.
That should still explain why Nitish Kumar pulled the JD-U out of the NDA after the BJP ‘unilaterally’ made Modi their prime ministerial candidate for the coalition.
For Nitish now, there is no political future after 2019. Independent of what he may have achieved, there is no denying anti-incumbency possibly taking its electoral toll on him, Lalu or no Lalu, corruption or no corruption.
At the national level, he also has competition from the rest if the BJP were to choose a prime ministerial candidate other than Modi (purely for argument’s sake).
Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan is among the probables from within the BJP. Who knows, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adiyanath may be the hard-liner’s choice if Hindutva were to replace Modi’s ‘development agenda’ as the BJP’s campaign call in 2019.
Even from within the NDA, there is Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu.
Thus, if Nitish Kumar did not make his choice now, he could not re-enter the NDA later on and hope to be counted in as a prime ministerial possibility.
By declaring his loyalty to Modi just now, he is also ensuring the support of the BJP. It is clear to him, as to anyone else, that it has to be Modi in 2019, at least as the prime ministerial candidate until and unless there are overt signs of the people looking for change.
If that change has to come from within, especially if the united or not-so-united Opposition were not ready or is unacceptable to the voter, then the NDA would have little choice to look around either within the BJP or outside of it.
That seems to be Nitish’s choice for riding the so-called anti-corruption wave.
Despite all this, there is also no denying the logic behind the fast-tracked Nitish-Modi approach to the former changing the boat mid-stream.
By taking Lalu Yadav and the RJD by surprise and getting sworn in with BJP support within hours after quitting as Bihar CM, Nitish Kumar handed down a fait accompli of sorts to the higher judiciary if it intended on intervening.
It is anybody’s guess why the RJD did not move either the governor or the Supreme Court within the hours available to them between Nitish quitting and getting back the old job, to stake claim as the single largest party and possibly the coalition too at the time, with the Congress still backing it.
Today, it is anybody’s guess if the Supreme Court, if moved and finds substance in the RJD argument, would want to set the clock back, and direct the governor to revisit the process and invite the RJD to try and form the government.
Instead, constitutional logic and legal practicality might dictate the need for the court to follow in the spirit of the ‘S R Bommai case’ verdict (1994), if approached now.
If so, the court, if approached, might direct Nitish Kumar to prove his majority in a floor-test, which he has done already -- and would have no problem doing it again, if it came to that.
Does it mean that the BJP-JD-U camp feared defections if the RJD had moved the court during the interregnum?
Or, did they fear a popular backlash of the earlier kind when Governor Buta Singh’s sacking of the Nitish Kumar government in 2005 led to wholesale condemnation, to which the Supreme Court also lent its powerful voice, later?
N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and political analyst, is Director, Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter.