Saturday, June 19, 2010

NITISH RETURNS MODI CHEQUE, ASKS FOR MUCH MORE

Nitish Kumar has done what the BJP must have been dreading, what it should have anticipated long back and been ready with an immediate response to.

The storm clouds have been gathering for long. During the last Lok Sabha elections, Nitish Kumar had made it clear that Narendra Modi was not welcome to campaign in Bihar because he did not want to lose Muslim votes. The BJP then meekly obliged probably because it anticipated a very close fight and did not want to lose even a single MP, particularly after Naveen Patnaik had surprised the party and dealt a body blow to it by breaking off the alliance in Odisha.

A few days back, when the BJP held its National Executive meeting in Patna, all seemed well initially, with Nitish Kumar even agreeing to host a dinner for BJP leaders, including Modi. But something was brewing under the surface. And it took just one advertisement with a old photograph of Nitish and Modi holding hands to unleash the tensions in the alliance, and fears of Nitish over Muslim votes erupted to the surface again. So enraged was he by the advertisement that he called off the dinner and even threatened to return the money that Modi had sent for flood relief to Bihar in 2008.

The situation was, however, quickly salvaged by JD(U) leader Sharad Yadav who said that the differences were minor and that alliance was as strong as ever. Then at the rally held by the BJP in Patna, Narendra Modi eased into the national stage as naturally as only real leaders do, and no one in the BJP was left in any doubt that he was the party's tallest leader by far. The unspoken sub-text was that he was most likely to be the party's Prime Ministerial candidate for the 2014 general elections.

While that possibility may have caused some discomfiture to Nitish, what must have really unnerved him was that for the forthcoming Assembly elections in the state, Modi would campaign for the the BJP. No party can allow its most promising potential Prime Ministerial to be kept away from a state by an alliance partner. To Nitish, that reality was evidently not acceptable. He reckoned that he would not be able to successfully sell his alliance with the BJP to his Muslim voters if Narendra Modi loomed larger than life in the state during the elections. So, for Nitish too, there was little choice. He had to unequivocally convey to Muslim voters that as far as Bihar was concerned, BJP was not Modi.

Today, Nitish Kumar has done the almost unthinkable. He has executed his threat and returned Rs 5 crore that Narendra Modi had sent on his request for flood relief. The message is blunt: Modi is his Enemy No.1; Modi is persona non-grata in Bihar; Modi will not be allowed to campaign in Bihar and use it as a stepping stone to the national centre stage. The BJP has been humiliatingly put in place again and told in no uncertain terms that it is the junior partner in alliance and has no choice but to accept the terms that he sets. And the first one is that Modi is unacceptable.

Nitish has returned a cheque but is asking for much more. This is perhaps a defining moment not only for the BJP but, to some extent, also for Indian politics as a whole.

"Inclusive" politics is the new mantra that is being liberally used -- pun intended -- to ensure that Congress and like-minded parties can keep capturing power in the Centre as well as in certain demographically vulnerable states. Notwithstanding the secular cloak under which it is being concealed, let no one be in any doubt that this is communal politics which is potentially extremely dangerous and incendiary. Simply put, it seeks to leverage the disproportionate block voting power of Muslims to ensure the defeat of parties whose primary appeal is to the non-existent majority that never has voted as a block in most parts of India and probably never will under normal circumstances.

For now, the appeal is primarily to the insecurities and fears of the Muslim block by projecting BJP as an anti-Muslim party. Crumbs are also being thrown so that other 'secular' claimants don't make a dent that significantly reduces the advantage of the Congress. For now, the demands of the block are not such as to arouse the insecurity of a majority of the majority in a manner that awakens it to the realisation that the power it can command as a block can totally nullify that of the Muslim block. But that will inevitably happen if "inclusive" politics yields rich dividends over a period of time and more 'secular' parties fight over the Muslim pie, increasing its bargaining power enormously. Political dividends as a result of this strategy will come at a steep social price. How steep will that be one cannot say now. But a quick look over the shoulder at what has happened in the last less than hundred years should be enough to make anyone shudder and never wish it, much less cause it, again for the people of India.

For the BJP, surrender to Nitish Kumar is the most attractive short-term option as it will secure power for it in Bihar. It has already shown that it is now as bad as, if not worse than, the Congress as far as ethics, morality and principles are concerned. In Jharkhand, it left no one in any doubt that unbridled lust for power and pelf is what drives it too. Nothing else matters. Since on that one major plane which at one stage distinguished it from the corrupt Congress, it now the latter's clone, there is really nothing else it has to offer to the voter that is better than what the Congress can. Add to that its extremely limited appeal to Muslim voters which too the Congress is busy buying in bulk, and you come to the inevitable conclusion that on this track, at best it can be no more than a distant second best.

By choosing Nitish over Modi, the BJP will also send a clear signal to the people that it too considers Modi guilty for 2002. If Modi is going to be projected as the next Prime Minister based on his stellar and unmatched performance as Chief Minister, then the party simply cannot afford to create such an impression and also swallow such humiliation, which may be repeated in other states too if Nitish gets away in Bihar. There is no surer way of ensuring defeat. It is possible that Modi's paper tiger opponents within the BJP are harbouring ambitions of getting the top job with the help of the media in whose comfort zone they are. They will undoubtedly pitch for Nitish and may even swing it for him.

The dilemma for the BJP is, thus, not limited only to its only leader who can mount a devastating campaign against the Congress on governance, vision, probity, lifestyle and exemplary leadership by example. It also involves the challenge that the party needs to mount to defeat insidious reverse communalism that the Congress is employing as its winning plank in the absence of a leader who can sway and carry people of all denominations along with him. Arithmetic is the new leader of the Congress. It is personality and ability proof across a large band of non-performance, thanks to a captive media that is doing a terrific paint job. Therefore, if the BJP falls prey to temptation in Bihar, it will mean that it has no answer to the Muslim strategy of the Congress except to play a defensive second fiddle where the arithmetic is challenging. Its capitulation in Bihar will also mean that it has not even thought of a counter strategy that can consolidate a big chunk of the majority vote to nullify the efforts of the Congress, without sounding anti-Muslim. The Congress doesn't utter an anti-Hindu word. It lets the media do that dirty work while it cleverly works to win over Muslims by talking for them, not against Hindus, except those belonging to the Sangh Parivar, a definition that now includes anyone who speaks for Hindus.

There is no doubt that if the BJP dumps Nitish now, the Congress will gain, at least in short term. At the same time, it will not only help reveal the actual strength of the BJP in Bihar, but may also open up a way for it to improve its position and enter into an alliance on different terms in 2014. But, if it dumps Modi instead, then it will be committing a double blunder, a hara kiri, that will only benefit the Congress at a deeper and more enduring level.