July 05, 2020
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Split Wide Open

Will the NDA ship start sinking with Nitish’s refusal to accept Modi as captain?

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Split Wide Open
Photo-imaging: Deepak Sharma; Photograph: PTI
Split Wide Open

Wrangling Modifier

Who is wary of Modi?
NDA allies (Nitish Kumar, JD(U); Uddhav Thackeray, Shiv Sena); Gujarat BJP leaders (Keshubhai Patel, Suresh Mehta); RSS pracharaks (Sanjay Joshi); former friends (Gordhan Zadaphia). Many BJP central leaders are also silently worried.

Do Modi, Nitish have a history?
In 2009, Nitish refused to let Modi campaign in Bihar. He returned a Rs 5-crore cheque Modi had sent for flood relief. He skipped a dinner in Patna where Modi was present after the local BJP unit ran a newspaper ad showing them holding hands.

Why the fresh flare-up?
To check Modi’s momentum after BJP’s national executive in Mumbai where he got Sanjay Joshi ejected. A third straight win in Gujarat could render Modi nearly unstoppable in his march to Delhi. Some BJP leaders are firing from Nitish’s shoulders.

Why is this so important now?
Neither Congress nor BJP will get a majority in the next poll. If Modi’s image is a problem for JD(U), it sends the signal to potential NDA allies like BJD, AIADMK, TMC, who are all wary of displeasing their votebanks.

Does Modi count for so much?
In public perception, yes. In reality, the jury is out. In 2009, Modi campaigned in 300 constituencies; the BJP won in only 25 of those. The constantly invoked “development” mantra was to have made Modi more acceptable; Nitish shows it has not.

Whose side is the RSS on?
The buzz is RSS did a deal with Modi on Joshi to secure a second term for Nitin Gadkari as president. Nitish’s attack on the Gujarat CM has seen RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat spring to Modi’s support, saying “India should have a PM who believes in Hindutva”.

Where does this leave Advani?
Improbably, Advani is now the BJP’s “moderate” face. Upstaged by Modi, Advani began his last yatra from Bihar, not Gujarat. There are whispers about whether he will stand from Gandhinagar again. Advani has led the NDA quest for a presidential candidate to show that he, not Modi, is still the boss.


Does he inspire fear and loathing or does he give inspirational leadership? Is he persona non grata or primus inter pares (first among equals), as one of his admirers describes Narendra Modi? What can be stated with certainty is that the Gujarat chief minister is the most polarising figure on the Indian national stage, and when such a personality aspires to the most powerful office in the land, there is bound to be a reaction that matches it in scale and sheer force. The first sputters came from within Modi’s own ideological family—the nasty episode with RSS’s Sanjay Joshi who had to leave the BJP’s national executive in Mumbai a month ago, the continued campaign by BJP dissidents in Gujarat, and the fact that a senior leader like L.K. Advani has also indicated a disagreement with a projection of Modi as the primary leader.

Modi’s supporters would possibly argue that all these are spent forces, the little people in a landscape where the Gujarat CM is a Gulliver-like figure. But they can hardly say that about Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar who, like Modi, has won three assembly elections, is politically all-powerful in a state that sends 40 MPs to the Lok Sabha, 14 more than Gujarat’s 26. His JD(U) is the most significant regional player in the NDA, and in an interview last week Nitish made it crystal clear that he would not be part of the alliance if Modi is the PM candidate. He wanted a “secular” leader, he said. Most critically, as a source close to him says, “he has demanded in the interview that the BJP name a PM candidate now so that they do not imagine they can bluff its allies”.

“BJP should have taken consent of all allies before projecting Modi; it’s what long-standing allies expect.”
Sanjay Raut, Shiv Sena’s Rajya Sabha MP

The Bihar CM has made his moves at a time when the BJP is already demoralised and divided over the presidential elections, with the Abdul Kalam plan sinking before it set sail. And when the party finally settled on backing P.A. Sangma, it was pointedly let down by the JD(U)—NDA’s liberal face—and the Shiv Sena—its hardline face—who both decided to back dyed-in-the-wool Congressman Pranab Mukherjee.

Not a good time for the BJP. But it is the Nitish-Modi tussle that will define the future. Trapped between the two powerful bearded leaders from the east and west, the BJP for some days did not field any spokespersons in TV studios on this issue. An official briefing at the party headquarters was cancelled. As a senior BJP leader quipped, “We are quite speechless.” Sources close to Nitish say that he took a strategic decision on the Modi question—the Gujarat CM would like to keep the debate on his economic growth agenda; the Bihar CM gave the signal to focus on the taint of the riots and how Vajpayee and other NDA leaders believe they lost the 2004 general elections because of 2002.

Propped up by the BJP Presidential candidate P.A. Sangma. (Photograph by Jitender Gupta)

The planned nuancing of Project Modi began to go awry in the TV studios when words like fascism, communalism, riots, killers, Hindus and Muslims flew around and it was not Teesta Setalvad but members of the JD(U) who were invoking Hitler to make the point. Then RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat jumped in and said that it is wrong to describe a pro-Hindu leader as not being secular. It was an indication both of an RSS endorsement of Modi and of the Sangh trying to run the BJP. Again not quite the way Modi would like his image to evolve. He has projected himself as the strongman who keeps the RSS in place and possibly even rescues the BJP from its clutches; here the sarsanghchalak was sending the signal that he was a “Hindu” leader who must be supported.

It has been a trailer of what is to come if Modi is actually projected as the PM candidate after the Gujarat assembly elections in December 2012. The JD(U)-BJP alliance works well on the ground in Bihar, so having made his point, Nitish will hold his horses till (and if) the BJP makes a formal declaration of Modi for PM. It is recent political history that propels Nitish. In the 2004 general elections, Laloo Yadav, who was losing ground, stemmed the slide when he ensured that CDs and posters about the Gujarat riots were circulated. He managed 22 seats, although less than a year later, he lost the assembly polls. After six months of President’s rule, Laloo lost even more decisively to the alliance led by Nitish in November 2005. The 2009 general elections saw a role reversal when the JD(U) got 20 seats from Bihar while junior partner BJP scored 12 (and Laloo a pathetic four). The next year, in 2010, the JD(U) got close to a simple majority in the assembly, a big achievement in the post-Mandal fractured polity of Bihar and UP. With the BJP, there’s a staggering majority of 206 in a house of 243.

“With just four parties and shrinking, how does the NDA think it can form a government?”
Shivanand Tiwari, JD(U) spokesperson

With a 16 per cent minority population in his state, Nitish cannot risk a polarisation against him. Lashing out at Modi and keeping him out of Bihar borders is just good politics. That is why Saibal Gupta, a Patna-based economist considered close to the CM, says that “Nitish is mentally, organisationally and politically preparing himself for a possible break with the BJP on the Modi question. He has to continue with the secular socialist tradition here. Even the BJP’s deputy chief minister Sushil Modi is from that tradition.” Sushil Modi too has said that the future NDA leader should be a Vajpayee-like figure. In Bihar, they say that “our Modi” is different from “that Modi”.

A close aide of Nitish says that since the Modi ball has been flung at him, he will hit it hard because it is good politics for him to do so. The CM, he reveals, had been warning BJP leaders ever since Modi took centrestage at the BJP national executive a month ago. “Nitishji,” says the aide, “told the BJP leaders, aap kaise kaise position le rahein hain. Ab hamara position bhi dekhiye (you are taking such positions, now watch mine).” The question that Nitish has brought centrestage is whether the BJP wants to repel allies or attract them. It is something the BJP must confront. It ruled the country with an inclusive figure like Vajpayee. A Modi-centric campaign will take off only if it is proven that he can indeed add to the BJP’s kitty and revitalise the party. So far, even that is just a hypothesis.

BJP’s oldest ally, the Shiv Sena, too doesn’t seem enamoured of the national party’s moves. Despite an association spanning two and a half decades and concurrence over aggressive Hindutva as a political tool, the Sena broke ranks over the presidential polls. In fact, the Sena has repeatedly snubbed the BJP lately. First, Uddhav Thackeray refused to attend last Sunday’s meeting in New Delhi on the presidential poll; a day later, he took apart his ally’s failed efforts to keep the NDA together; the following day, his father and Sena chief Bal Thackeray lambasted the BJP in party paper Saamna, saying—“If you don’t keep a sword, don’t go out to battle”; and when the BJP endorsed P.A. Sangma’s candidature, the Thackerays refused to change their stance.

Uncharacteristically again, the Sena surprised everyone by seemingly opposing the effort to project Modi as the prime minister for 2014. “The BJP would have been better off taking the consent of all allies before projecting Modi as the next PM candidate, at least that’s what long-standing allies expect,” says a caustic Sanjay Raut, Sena’s Rajya Sabha MP.

The Sena is ambivalent over Modi. In his ideal world, Thackeray Sr should adore a “Hindutva” prime minister who could take on India’s neighbours and project the country as a strong Hindu power on the global stage. But between dreams and reality there is realpolitik and human egos. The Sena leadership believes that Modi would bring new elements into a tested relationship. The Sangh parivar’s projection of Modi as a ‘Hindu hriday samrat’ is, to put it mildly, offensive to the Sena cadre, given that Thackeray Sr has been referred to with that title since the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992. Says a Sena insider, “Modi’s persona is such that he doesn’t give any bhav (importance) to other leaders, whereas Balasaheb is used to BJP leaders, from Vajpayeeji to the late Pramod Mahajan, treating him with deference.”

“What is wrong with a pro-Hindu leader? Is secularism about minority appeasement?”
M.G. Vaidya, RSS spokesperson

And it’s not just the Sena which has mixed feelings over the projection of Modi as PM; sections of the Maharashtra BJP do so too. For decades, the party was broadly grouped under the RSS-Gadkari loyalists and the relatively modernist Mahajan-Munde acolytes; the two groups have slightly different views on Modi-as-PM, though no one dare discuss this openly. The second group and the Sena share the fear that projecting Modi may polarise votes in 2014 to an extent where the NDA will lose its best chance of coming to power. “Our PM candidate for 2014 has to be a careful and considered decision, not the BJP’s unilateral one,” says Raut.

Once upon a time, Chandrababu Naidu gave outside support to the NDA (see interview) and the alliance was a rainbow of regional parties. Over the years, that universe has shrunk. If the JD(U) departs, the BJP would be left with the Akali Dal and Sena as its significant allies. The Akalis are currently engaged in building a memorial to Bhindranwale and friends, an action that can hardly be acceptable in the world according to the RSS. AIADMK chief J. Jayalalitha is said to have an excellent relationship with Modi, but can she alone offset those who would stay away? If the BJP still positions Modi as PM, it would be an exercise in going inward. Individuals often heal themselves by searching within. But it would be paradoxical for a coalition-era political party to attempt that.

By Saba Naqvi in New Delhi and Smruti Koppikar in Mumbai with Panini Anand and R.K. Mishra

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