Even as the two NDA partners take potshots at each other, there is also a touch of bravado to the ongoing exchange of fire, says Sunita Moga
As the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Janata Dal-United are locked in an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation, the question that begs an answer is whether either of the parties can actually afford to part company with each other.
While both parties have their compulsions in adopting strident positions vis-a-vis each other, they also have equally compelling reasons to stick together.
Nitish Kumar needs the BJP’s upper caste support base in Bihar to supplement his vote bank comprising the Extremely Backward Classes, while the BJP cannot afford to lose any allies as it makes a strong pitch for power in the 2014 general election.
On the face of it, the weekend developments would suggest that the relationship between the BJP and JD-U leader and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar is fast unraveling.
Known for his antipathy towards Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, Nitish Kumar made it amply clear to the BJP in his address at the JD-U national executive that the Gujarat strongman would not be acceptable as an NDA prime ministerial candidate for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
The party’s political resolution underlined that the NDA’s prime ministerial candidate must have impeccable secular credentials, thus ruling out Modi as the JD-U has repeatedly charged that he failed to control the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat. At the same time, it also made it clear that the BJP must declare its PM candidate by this
A fuming BJP was quick to retaliate. In an unusual move, the party issued a formal statement, drafted after a meeting at veteran leader L K Advani’s residence, rejected “the unfounded inferences” against Narendra Modi. Clearly unhappy that its coalition partner had chosen to target its most popular, widely perceived to be the party’s PM candidate, the BJP pointed out that opposition parties and its allies should focus on defeating the UPA instead of concentrating their “energies on our chief ministers.”
Even on Monday, the BJP continued to take potshots at its alliance partner. “So far as any allegation, accusation against our CM is concerned, we completely abhor that,” party spokesperson Meenakshi Lekhi said, adding that Nitish Kumar was nobody to give Modi a certificate on secularism.
Even as the two NDA partners take potshots at each other, there is also a touch of bravado to this ongoing exchange of fire. There is undoubtedly a strong view in the saffron party that it should not allow the JD-U to dictate terms to it and that it should certainly not be pressured by its ally to compromise on Modi’s candidature for the top post. In fact, the party’s Bihar unit is learnt to have told its leadership that Nitish Kumar is not as invincible as he was during his first term and that the BJP can now afford to walk out of its alliance with the JD-U.
According to BJP’s Bihar leaders, Modi’s projection for the PM’s post would actually help erode Nitish Kumar’s EBC vote bank as Gujarat chief minister also comes from a backward class. “You will be surprised how the backwards classes are identifying with Modi,” remarked a senior BJP leader from Bihar.
However, the Central BJP is aware of the perils of calling off its partnership with the JD-U. At a time when it is hoping to take advantage of the strong anti-incumbency mood against the Congress-led UPA government, the BJP has to add to its list of allies and not lose those already in its fold since it cannot come to power on its own strength.
The BJP has not forgotten how the huge losses suffered by the NDA before the 2004 Lok Sabha elections when it lost three valuable allies -- Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress, the Telugu Desam Party and the Biju Janata Dal. Since then, the Akali Dal, Shiv Sena and the JD-U have proved to be crucial partners for the BJP.
In addition, Nitish Kumar’s opposition to the Gujarat chief minister is also coming in handy for the anti-Modi faction within the BJP.
There is a widespread perception that L K Advani, Sushma Swaraj and, to some extent, Arun Jaitley are not really complaining about the stand taken by the JD-U as they are all contenders for the PM’s post. In fact, Nitish Kumar actually rooted for Advani for the PM’s post, a line which has since been promptly endorsed by BJP leader Yashwant Sinha and Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan.
While the BJP will find it difficult to break ties with Nitish Kumar, it will be equally difficult for the JD-U leader to do the same.
His workers are not happy with the current turn of events and would prefer the two parties to stick together as both would prove to be losers in case of a split. The JD-U’s biggest fear is that its break with the BJP will provide an opportunity to RJD chief Lalu
Prasad Yadav to stage a comeback. At the same time, it could end up loosing the support of upper castes which have shown a marked preference for the BJP and Modi. Nitish Kumar is painfully aware that it was the social coalition of upper castes, EBCs and a section of the minorities which had helped him come to power for a second term.
However, Nitish Kumar faces a dilemma on another front. He needs the BJP to bring in the upper castes and guard against any possible erosion in his EBC vote back but by backing Modi, he could end up losing the crucial support of the 15 per cent minorities.
In fact, Nitish Kumar’s strident anti-Modi stand is essentially aimed at consolidating the support of the minorities who would drift towards Lalu Prasad Yadav if the JD-U is seen to back the Gujarat CM. The RJD chief, who has a far higher comfort level with the minorities, has been attracting substantial crowds at his rallies. If the RJD, Ram
Vilas Paswan’s LJP and the Congress are able seal an electoral pact, Nitish could find himself on shaky ground without BJP support in the triangle contest.
Alternatively, Nitish Kumar could sew up an alliance with the Congress which is ever eager to do so. Although the JD-U has denied having a truck with the Congress, it is also a fact that Nitish Kumar and Congress ministers, including Finance Minister P Chidambaram, have publicly praised each other in the recent past while the Centre has
not been averse to the chief minister’s demands for special funds for his state.
In case it does join hands with the Congress, the JD-U could get the benefit of the support of the upper castes and the minorities. But this possibility appears to be a remote one at present as it could lead to dissensions within the JD-U since a section in the party, led by Sharad Yadav, has a marked preference for the BJP-led NDA.