‘We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow’
— 19th-century British prime minister Lord Palmerston
ON 16 April, Bihar’s capital, Patna, witnessed an act of political grandstanding by the Janata Dal (United), which leads the state’s ruling coalition. Shivanand Tiwari, Rajya Sabha MP and party spokesperson, called a press conference to attack his party’s junior coalition partner, the BJP. “We haven’t forced the BJP to partner us and it is free to walk out,” Tiwari thundered. “The government will survive without it.”
Perhaps the BJP thought, he smirked, it was more important of the two because it ruled several states while the JD(U) ruled only Bihar. If the BJP quits, he said, “we will fight Bihar’s election by ourselves: all the 40 Lok Sabha seats and all the 243 Assembly seats.” Left unsaid was that minus the JD(U), the BJP cannot really hope to storm back to power in New Delhi at the head of a coalition following next year’s General Election.
The two parties have never bickered as much as now during their partnership of 17 years, through several prequels and splinters of the JD(U). Bihar Chief Minister and JD(U)’s de facto supremo, Nitish Kumar, threw the gauntlet by daring the BJP to name Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi as its prime ministerial candidate and risk a break with the JD(U). Secularism, Kumar said, was non-negotiable, and then followed up by saying Modi should own up to the killing of some 2,000 Muslims in February-March 2002 by zealots linked with the RSS, the BJP’s ideological parent, which supplies the party most of its politicians, including Modi. The BJP shot back, telling Kumar to mind his business.
The verbal duel set the Ganges on fire, bringing juiciness back to Bihar’s politics, which has been rather staid since the coalition first won power in the 2005 Assembly election and retained it five years later. Among other rumours that flew hard and thick this week, one said Modi was considering contesting the 2014 parliamentary election from a seat in Patna and have the last laugh by winning it.
But is the sparring for real? At the end of his press conference, Tiwari admitted that any breakdown of the coalition would be “unfortunate”. Around the same time, Kumar and his Deputy Chief Minister, Sushil Modi of the BJP, were hanging out together at a function without a trace of bad blood. The BJP’s state president, Giriraj Singh, a Narendra Modi-supporter who held back no punches in attacking Kumar this week, too was in attendance.
The two parties have a history of bickering one day and shaking hands the next. They have been accused of barking without biting. But with temperatures as high as this week’s, the question uppermost in political minds is: which of the two would be the loser if the partnership is called off? Also, would Nitish Kumar succeed in exorcising the ghost of the BJP by ending the partnership now and convincing the state’s Muslims, who are over 16 percent of its eight crore people, to vote for the JD(U)?
Crunch some numbers to get a sense of what might lie ahead for the two parties. The vote share of the JD(U) stood at over 22.5 percent, the largest among all political parties in the fray, at the 2010 Assembly polls. This was an improvement of over 2 percent since 2005. On the other hand, the BJP polled considerably less, just shy of 16.5 percent, which was an increase of less than 1 percent over 2005.
But in terms of seats won as a percentage of those contested, the BJP trumped the JD(U). It won 91 of 102 seats it fought — a success rate of nearly 90 percent. The JD(U), on the other hand, won 115 seats out of the 143 it contested, a success rate of 80 percent. There is no doubt that both parties benefitted substantially by gaining each other’s voters.
“The BJP would emerge stronger if it leaves the alliance,” says Prem Kumar Mani, a former state legislator who was once a confidant of the chief minister. “It is a national party and, being in power in the state over the last seven years, it has expanded its base.”
His view that several JD(U) biggies would find it hard to win without the BJP as a partner finds an echo with some others too. “The BJP has a permanent organisation in Bihar unlike Nitish Kumar,” says Ram Bihari Singh, a former JD(U) leader who switched to the RJD of former chief minister Lalu Prasad Yadav, Kumar’s rival. “Kumar has no permanent voter base to count on with confidence.” Moreover, there have been murmurs of dissent in the JD(U) from some party bigwigs once close to Kumar. They say the chief minister has become distant and has surrounded himself with “opportunists” who have switched over to him from Yadav.
But the BJP’s touted organisational base in Bihar hasn’t faced a battle standing alone. This puts it at a disadvantage, says Mahendra Suman, a political analyst. “Bihar elections are fought and won on the basis of a strong leadership and agenda,” he told TEHELKA in Patna. “The BJP has neither, while Nitish Kumar has won plaudits for his leadership.” His performance in his first term (2005-10), especially the reduction in crime rates on his watch, gave Kumar an image of a strong political leader, similar to the one that Yadav — who ruled Bihar unchallenged from 1990 until Kumar trounced him — once had.
Compared with Kumar, the BJP leaders in Bihar are small beer. Deputy Chief Minister Modi is hardly the man to charm voters across the state. As for the relevance of having an extensive organisational base, Suman points to the CPI-ML (Liberation), which has such a base in Bihar but has consistently failed to win elections.
Die Is Caste
Among the Hindu electorate, two caste groups will be keenly watched at the next Lok Sabha election — the extremely backward castes (EBCs) and the upper castes. There are 119 EBCs comprising 42 percent of the state’s population and they voted overwhelmingly for the ruling alliance in 2010. In his first term, Kumar separated the EBCs from the backward castes and announced a slew of financial projects for them. But lately, the EBCs are said to be disenchanted with him. Their leaders complain that the government supports the upper castes and awards public works contracts to the backward castes.
No doubt RJD leader Yadav will be watching the EBCs closely as they once backed him before switching to Kumar. The BJP, too, has tried to appease the overall backward base by seeking India’s highest civilian award, the Bharat Ratna, for the late socialist leader Karpoori Thakur, a backward who was twice CM in the 1970s. Clearly, the EBC vote is up for play.
There is palpable disillusionment in another key social group that has been voting for the JD(U)-BJP: the Maha Dalits, the worst-off among the former untouchables. Ramchandra Ram, a Maha Dalit who Kumar appointed to a statutory panel set up to suggest policies and initiatives for this social group, resigned in October citing ill-treatment of his community by officials and corruption in financial schemes for them. A report from the National Crime Records Bureau saying that crimes against Maha Dalits have shot up, too, has angered the community.
Then, of course, are the Muslims, whose votes are the prize for which Kumar is now willing to break from the BJP. In the last Bihar elections, roughly one in every four Muslims is believed to have voted for the JD(U) despite its partnership with the BJP. That’s a big number. Although Muslims average 16.5 percent in the state’s population, they are higher, about 25 percent, in a quarter of the state’s 243 Assembly seats.
Traditionally, Muslims have supported RJD leader Yadav, who wears his secularism on his sleeve. It was Yadav who as chief minister had arrested BJP leader LK Advani in 1990 at Samastipur in Bihar when the latter was on a nationwide roadshow to raise support for a divisive campaign to build a temple in place of a mosque in Ayodhya. An overwhelming 80 percent of the Muslims in Bihar are said to be pasmanda, or Dalits, who converted to Islam but are still widely discriminated. Once they supported Yadav, but switched to Kumar in substantial numbers in the 2005 Assembly polls, and even more in 2010.
But while Kumar hopes to get more of their votes by voicing his opposition to Narendra Modi, there has been discontent among the state’s Muslims, too, over his failure to secure them tangible benefits.
Especially prickly has been the government’s failure to bring to justice the policemen who killed five Muslims in June 2011 as they were protesting a land takeover for a factory with which a BJP legislator was connected. Kumar has never once visited the site of the shootout in a village near the town of Forbesganj in northeast Bihar. “Nitish Kumar has freely allied with the BJP, the Akali Dal and the Shiv Sena, which are all communal parties,” says political commentator Saroor Ali. “How is he secular?”
IRONICALLY, KUMAR himself is from a backward caste — Kurmi — that is a mere 2.6 percent of the population. (By comparison, Yadav’s caste group has an 11 percent share of the population.) That is why he critically needs the EBCs, the Maha Dalits and the pasmanda Muslims if he parts ways with the BJP. Of course, none of the caste equations might matter if, as the BJP hopes, Narendra Modi’s candidature for the prime minister’s job galvanises Hindus across castes and polarises them in its favour.
Indeed, the BJP-RSS have stepped up their activities to rally popular support ever since Kumar began making noises against the projection of Narendra Modi as a candidate for prime minister should the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), which the BJP leads, come to power. In December, the ABVP, the youth wing of the BJP-RSS, held its annual jamboree in Patna. The RSS cadres also organised the Ardh Kumbh, a Hindu festival, in north Bihar.
Last year, too, fiery communal speeches were made at a supposedly cultural conference, in the presence of known Hindutva proponents such as Ashok Singhal, Uma Bharti and Subramanian Swamy. A senior RSS functionary, declining to be named, said that they have a backward alternative to counter Kumar in case the partnership falls. That mantle would fall on former Rajya Sabha MP Upendra Kushwaha, who resigned both his place in Parliament and his membership of the JD(U) this year and has set up a political party of his own.
Translated from Hindi Tehelka by Saif Ullah Khan