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Did Nitish Kumar Get Scared Of 'Modi Magic'?

January 31, 2024 11:59 IST

In switching over, Nitish has sent out a message that if he could not now become the NDA's PM, then he would need to stay on as CM at the very least, which a third term for Modi would not let him have, N Sathiya Moorthy points out.

IMAGE: Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar pays tribute to Mahatma Gandhi on his 76th death anniversary at Gandhi Ghat in Patna, January 30, 2024. Photograph: ANI Photo

Nitish Kumar is not the first leader to desert an alliance as has done now in native Bihar.

As Congress President Mallikharjun Kharge has indicated, if he had been named the INDIA combine's convenor or even prime ministerial candidate, he could well have heaped greater/worse shame on them by defecting as the leader of the heap.

Before Nitish Kumar, unified Andhra Pradesh's chief minister and the forgotten non-Congress, anti-BJP United Front convenor N Chandrababu Naidu had done it after the 1998 Lok Sabha elections.

He waited silently until the combine began toying with the idea of making him the prime minister with continued 'outside support' from the former as after the earlier round of polls in 1996.

As may be recalled, Elections '96 had thrown up a unique post-poll alliance with Karnataka's then Janata Dal-Secular chief minister H D Deve Gowda as PM.

When the outside Congress underwriter squirmed because the government was getting stabilised, they replaced the PM with I K Gujral.

On both occasions, Tamil Nadu's Tamil Maanila Congress leader G K Moopanar's name topped the list for PM, but he was not the final choice despite the Congress seemingly preferring the breakaway party leader from Elections '96.

Of course, Moopanar's name topped the list for a non-BJP prime minister though the BJP-NDA's Atal Bihari Vajpayee was still the popular favourite from the other side of the political spectrum.

But when Moopanar's name once again failed to collect the required numbers, Naidu's name cropped up in small circles within the united/divided Third Front.

UP's Mulayam Singh Yadav had not given up hopes of becoming for a third time in a row.

Naidu's arguments stunned the interlocutors. The BJP had won four seats and polled 18.3 per cent of the popular vote in Andhra Pradesh.

Unlike the pundits from distant Delhi had thought, these votes did not come from the BJP's Congress rival at the national level.

Instead, it was his TDP that was losing the hold. The Congress, with a high 42.7 per cent vote-share had bagged a high 22 of 42 Lok Sabha seats from the unified Andhra Pradesh.

For him to arrest the voting trend and get back his vote-share, the TDP had to align with the BJP and not continue rivalling it.

The end result was that Naidu, who was the convener, walked out of the third United Front, and stayed neutral.

It translated as 'issue-based support' to the Vajpayee government, whatever it meant whenever that support was called for.

IMAGE: Then Andhra Pradesh chief minister Nara Chandrababu Naidu with then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Photograph: Kind courtesy N Chandrababu Naidu/X

On the face of it, successive Congress high command decisions on different state leaderships of the party, or now the convenor of the INDIA combine, may read selfish, self-centred and outright unimaginative.

Looking back however, the decision not to make Jyotiraditya Scindia (Madhya Pradesh) and Sachin Pilot (Rajasthan) chief ministers at the time might have been a wise decision, after all.

These were leaders who might have crossed over to the BJP when denied the chief ministerial berth when they sought.

Yes, Pilot did not actually cross over. It was not for want of intent after the previous assembly elections in 2018.

It was because Ashok Gehlot had a vice grip over the legislature party in Rajasthan.

That made the decision for Kamal Nath in Madhya Pradesh, but Scindia's princely pride had been hurt and patience too had run out.

He crossed over to the BJP with a pack of 20 MLAs, for the party to recapture power.

Today, Kamal Nath is already forgotten but Scindia too may end up at least as a foot note in the BJP's contemporary history confined to Madhya Pradesh. No national-level importance for him, or so it seems.

In this background, Nitish Kumar by his post facto conduct has proved right, the other INDIA partners' silent, unspoken decision not to trust him as their convenor.

For long, it has been known that he had not given up his prime ministerial hope, nor forgiven incumbent Narendra Modi, who as the most charismatic leader in the country now, stood way ahead and away from him in popular imagination -- and all across the country.

For the INDIA combine, which still hopes to give a tough time to the BJP-NDA, if not wrest power, in the Lok Sabha polls this summer, Nitish was a Trojan Horse, at best.

If for argument's sake, the BJP-NDA was short on numbers and if he could offer them on a platter in return for the PM's job, Nitish was the man to suspect.

The reasons are not far to seek. From before the Lok Sabha polls of 2004, Nitish had harboured hopes of becoming PM in or after 2014.

In Elections 2004, Sonia Gandhi's 'Aam Aadmi' drowned the ruling BJP-NDA's 'India Shining!' campaign.

That was also the time the BJP-NDA of which Nitish was a part tentatively decided at high places that L K Advani would get another hit at the prime minister's job in 2009.

The post-poll analysis was that the tentativeness of the BJP's prime ministerial choice, between incumbent Vajpayee and 'hardliner' (!) Advani cost the party heavily.

It was an irony that the Congress-led UPA which had won with Sonia Gandhi as the mascot threw up an unsuspecting Manmohan Singh as prime minister.

It was a repeat of Elections '91, when after the Rajiv Gandhi assassination, the GoP chose P V Narasimha Rao, who had aleady retired from active politics, over the competing claims of Arjun Singh and Sharad Pawar.

But it is the BJP that mattered then as now. Manmohan Singh, in 2009, retained power for the UPA, on his own steam rather than that of the party or even Nehru-Gandhi's family identity and the accompanying socio-economic ideology.

Advani lost the chance for the second time in a row. By previous arrangement, he was to vacate the party's prime ministerial candidate.

IMAGE: G K Moopanar. Photograph: Kind courtesy G K Moopanar Peravai/Facebook

The unwritten agreement in 2004 was that Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi would be the BJP's prime ministerial face in 2014.

The hope was that Advani would become PM in 2004 and through a second consecutive term, strengthen the party as much as Modi has done since, for the BJP to enforce its Hindutva plank without contestation and contradictions, though there would be the inevitable controversies that are visible at present.

As may be recalled, ahead of the 1998 Lok Sabha polls, the BJP had come up with the 'Chennai Declaration', where the express decision was to put ideological issues in cold storage, where the party was unable to muster the required parliamentary support to stake and stay on in power.

They had learnt it the hard way two years earlier in 1996, when Vajpayee's first BJP-led government could stay in power only for 13 days.

No anti-Congress regional party would touch the BJP with its hardline Hindutva agenda at the time.

As far back as 2004, the general understanding within the NDA at the top echelons was that Nitish as Bihar CM would be the prime ministerial face of the combine if the BJP did not make the grade by itself.

When Advani and the BJP lost 2009 for the second time in a row, Nitish was the name that was doing the rounds.

But Nitish's hopes were shattered when Modi's name came up, as if out of nowhere, a year or two ahead of Elections 2014.

It had the power to out-smart and out-do Advani's projection from within the Sangh Parivar, where there were those who still felt that Advani deserved a third bid.

Pragmatism prevailed when it was argued what if Advani failed a third time.... Would not the Parivar lose the opportunity to win back power and re-write post-Independence history as they only wanted?

IMAGE: Nitish Kumar takes oath as chief minister of Bihar in Patna, January 28, 2024. Photograph: ANI Photo

Modi won the first round, within the Parivar, wherein the RSS parent had little choice but to fall in line when Modi, in a calculated move, went over the head of the monolith organisation and visibly won over the masses long before they made him PM.

Remember how Nitish as Bihar CM boycotted Modi's public rally in Patna ahead of the 2014 polls. The seed for that estrangement lay in his disappointment.

Since then, Nitish has been changing ships between the BJP-NDA and the Mahagathbandhan, or grand alliance, if only to stay relevant and important in the politics of native Bihar.

It is thus that his prime ministerial ambitions were possibly stirred when a whisper campaign in between put it out that the BJP-NDA could well fall short of the magic figure of 272 this time round.

The 'Modi magic' had proved them all wrong twice in as many electoral outings at the national-level.

Even in the recent assembly polls in five states, the BJP retained Madhya Pradesh and trounced the Congress rival in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh.

Even otherwise, Nitish's problem had an additional angle. By deserting the BJP one more time and crossing over to the Mahagathbandan, he had seemingly promised the chief minister's job to RJD's Tejaswi Yadav, who was his deputy CM until this week's defection back to the BJP camp.

His earlier ambition was to become INDIA convenor first and the prime ministerial face, afterwards.

With the convenor's job lost, he seemed to have concluded that the PM's job was also not his even if they won.

So, Nitish needed to retain his job and also his relevance at least in Bihar politics.

That's the irony of the man just now. Either it has to be the PM on someone else's shoulders, or at least the CM's job, again on someone else's shoulders.

In switching over, Nitish has sent out a message that if he could not now become the NDA's PM, then he would need to stay on as CM at the very least, which a third term for Modi would not let him have.

Or, at least the RJD's Yadav would still insist on taking up.

Hence, Nitish has embraced the BJP earlier than needed, earlier than expected, if only to deny Tejaswi Yadav a go at the CM's job.

The alternative would be for the septuagenarian to be kicked upstairs once again as a Union minister in a BJP-NDA government at the Centre, and a BJP leader to take his place as CM, with the party's future plans for Bihar in mind.

IMAGE: Nitish Kumar with Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi. Photograph: ANI Photo

At the end of the day, Nitish Kumar's electoral journey since his becoming chief minister after the assembly polls of 2020 is worth recalling as no one seems to want to remember it.

Despite his being CM, his Janata Dal-United could manage only a low 43 seats in the 243 member assembly against the previous figure of 71.

The RJD score too had come down from 80 to 75 while the BJP had a higher tally, from 53 to 74.

Though he did not have the grace and circumspection to put forth the argument that the people were more in favour of the BJP than any other party, including his JD-U, his continuance as CM under the BJP-NDA combine did leave a bad taste -- but not in his mouth.

So, defecting out of the NDA came as natural to him as joining the BJP combine, which somersault he has executed once again, now.

Haryana of the late sixties threw up the disapproving political phrase, 'Aaya Ram, Gaya Ram', with reference to constant political defections of Nitish Kumar's kind now -- put at a much faster pace, yes.

Literally meaning, 'Ram is coming, Ram is going' as one legislator, Gaya Lal did the double cross over, from one party to another and back to the former, all within a matter of hours, not even days.

Yes, there were many defections and defectors in the Haryana of those days, and the rest of the country, too, earlier and later.

But there was only one Gaya Lal. His defections and re-defections were at a personal-level.

In comparison, Nitish's Kumar's defections have always been as a party with he and his JD-U acolytes retaining power all the time.

All of it deserves the coinage of a new phrase, yes, and can you call it 'Nitishism', after all!

Better or worse still, all of it is being staged in times of the Modi kind of stability at the national level that the BJP-NDA has been boasting about as never before after Rajiv Gandhi lost the parliamentary elections for the ruling Congress party, way back in 1989. And in Modi's name!

Yes, the nation may not be prepared, as yet at least, for a repeat of the unsought after experiment of the 1996 kind -- a post-poll alliance of anti-BJP, non-Congress regional parties to stake claim for power at the Centre and have it too.

Today's norm, instead, is all about stability at the Centre, and engineered instability in every other state where the voters had preferred a non-BJP/anti-BJP government, when given a chance.

This is 'Modiism' or the 'Modi model', did you say?

N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and author, is a Chennai-based policy analyst and political commentator.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/