All is not well with Nitish Kumar. He is facing a serious rebellion within his party ranks. Even JD(U) president Sharad Yadav has apparently scoffed at his soft Congress policy. Corruption and misgovernance has taken the sheen off the Bihar turnaround story. One would have thought the serial blasts at Narendra Modi’s Hunkar rally at Patna’s Gandhi Maidan would pin the Bihar chief minister on the back foot.
Sure enough, Nitish defended his government (“there was no intelligence input from the Centre”), warned about deterioration of the polity (“the incident is a blot on Bihar’s political tradition”) and refused to get drawn into countering Modi’s rhetoric (“won’t say anything today, but that does not mean I have nothing to say”). The next day, the BJP accused his administration of “deliberate security lapses”. Then, addressing party workers at a strategy meet in Rajgir, he tore into Modi.
This is not just about secularism anymore. Nitish called Modi ignorant, bitter and a liar in a hurry. Yes, Taxila is not Nalanda and is in Pakistan. The retreat of Alexander’s army had nothing to do with Bihar. No, the two CMs never shared a table at any prime ministerial function. Having set the facts straight, Nitish compared “story-teller” Modi to Asaram Bapu, and then to Goebbels. But such nuggets of Nitish-Modi back and forth are now legends in the social media.
Modi is by far the most popular public speaker in contemporary Indian politics. Irrespective of the substance of his speech, his style works uproariously with the masses. In the run-up to the 2014 election, so far, the Congress has been woefully short on ammo. Public-speaking disasters like Manmohan Singh or Rahul Gandhi don’t really compare. In such a scenario, it is not unusual for a non-Congress leader to step up and lead the secular campaign against Modi.
But measure the irony of it, the non-Congress leader who has emerged as Modi’s most vocal opposition is the one who ran a successful government with his party’s support until a few months ago. In fact, amid the usual and often tired secular chatter, Nitish was the first to challenge Modi by severing ties with the BJP on the issue of his anointment as the party’s prime ministerial candidate. Suddenly, Modi cannot get away with targeting only the Gandhis and the prime minister.
Nitish did business with the BJP for nearly a decade, dealing with the very leaders who have been cheering the phenomenal rise of Modi. At the same time, he was aware of his razor-thin majority minus the BJP and the mercurial nature of a number of his party leaders. He knew the implication of losing the numerical comfort of having the BJP’s support that helped him tide over revolts in the past. Already, senior leaders such as Shivanand Tiwari and Narendra Singh are proving to be quite a handful. Did Nitish risk his government and political future for a principled stand?
Or was he desperate to avoid a political fix where a BJP under Modi would become too prosperous and domineering a partner? Did he sacrifice the upper caste Hindu votes that his marriage with the BJP had earned him only to accommodate Muslim votes he hopes to attract after the separation? Did he anticipate Lalu Yadav’s conviction? And a shift of the RJD’s Yadav vote towards the BJP, leaving Lalu too weak to be considered dependable by the minority? Was he being opportunistic?
Those close to Nitish swear that he would not nurse any national ambition before securing his grip on Bihar. But did accolades from the likes of Amartya Sen make him impatient of Modi’s questionable claims of good governance? Did he see himself as the consensus Third Front candidate, if it comes to such an eventuality, for the top post? Is that why he has been soft on the Congress whose support will be crucial for such a deal?
Principled, desperate or opportunistic, Nitish’s consistent and fiery opposition to Modi’s rhetoric has already pivoted him to the centre of national politics where the Nitish-Modi duel is now followed as keenly as the Rahul-Modi story. That in itself is no mean achievement. But is Nitish punching above his weight? To make any difference in the post-poll scenario, the JD(U) chief must have enough MPs from Bihar, where his popularity has been sliding steadily since the phenomenal high of 2009.
Nitish has already charmed the anti-Modi constituency in the national debate. Question is, will Bihar be impressed?