Will Nitish Kumar ‘Legitimise’ BJP in Bihar Like Chimanbhai Did?
Bihar Elections 2020: Is the BJP ‘using’ Nitish Kumar in Bihar like it once ‘played’ Chimanbhai Patel in the ‘90s?
As Bihar prepares for India’s first elections in the post COVID-19 era, a few slices of history serve as useful tools to decipher much of what has been stated as well as left unsaid, by the two principal National Democratic Alliance partners – the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Janata Dal (U).
These pages narrating events of an era that lie almost forgotten, provide clues to why the pact was finalised only at the last minute, and that too after the BJP was forced to pledge that its pact was ‘unbreakable’. This alone ensured that Chief Minister Nitish Kumar did not upset the applecart.
The saffron party's assurance notwithstanding, it is widely presumed that the last has not been heard on this. Undeniably, the poll narrative is on an unscripted path and the viewpoint that the Bihar chief minister would eventually be remembered in history as the person who aided BJP “garner acceptability and respectability in the eyes of the backward and marginalised classes in Bihar” do not exactly sound incredulous.
Past Tensions Between Nitish Kumar & Modi
There are several reasons to conclude that the ruling coalition is fractious, the most obvious being Chirag Paswan's decision to tear into the Nitish Kumar's ‘Sushashan Babu’ image while pledging support for a BJP-led government.
It, however, is more important to recapitulate the tense relations between the BJP and Nitish Kumar, specifically the sourness that characterises his equation with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
While the absence of Lalu Yadav due to continued incarceration and the demise of Ram Vilas Paswan are recognised as vital factors that will influence the poll outcome, the death of Arun Jaitley, which left the chief minister sans possibly the only well-wisher within the BJP, has been largely forgotten.
It was primarily at Jaitley’s behest that the BJP gave up on insisting being the ‘senior partner’ in Bihar and backed Nitish Kumar as the state’s chief ministerial candidate in 2005.
Even his ill-advised first seven-day tenure as chief minister in March 2000 was with Jaitley's backing.
Past personal antagonism between Modi and Nitish Kumar runs as a constant in BJP-JD(U) ties and sheds light on the present unease.
What Happened To Chimanbhai Patel In ‘90s
But it is useful to recall BJP's strategy, at the prodding of Modi in the early 1990s, which enabled the party to emerge as the dominant force in the state, displacing Chimanbhai Patel as Gujarat's all-powerful satrap.
Between the summer of 1989 and the autumn of 1990, the BJP cozied up to Patel, propped him up as chief minister, and thereafter, pulled the rug from beneath his feet.
Patel remained chief minister till his death in 1994, but effectively lived on borrowed time from October 1990 when the BJP walked out of the coalition government.
Although the BJP remained in Opposition till the assembly elections in 1995, it was evident that the party was, in effect, the ‘government-in-waiting’.
In the course of an interview while writing his biography, I asked Modi about the political developments in the crucial years when the BJP emerged as the primary political force in the state. These years also witnessed the near-complete decimation of the Congress party and the Janata conglomerate.
For the 1989 parliamentary polls, the BJP forged an alliance with the Janata Dal in the state, then led by Patel, an one-time Congressman who moved to the Opposition in the mid 1970s. The dominant view within the party, not shared by Modi, was that the party needed to tie-up with Patel because it did not have a prominent 'face', and also as they were unsure about the acceptability of their brand of politics.
Throwback: “We Won 12 Out Of 12 & Chimanbhai Won Only 11 Out Of 14”
Modi detailed his point of view during the 2012 interview. He stated that he was not in favour of the pact, “but no one agreed” because he “could not convince” his seniors that the Ayodhya agitation had created a ‘favourable’ situation for the BJP.
Modi's subsequent pitch for a 50-50 split of the 26 seats was also struck down, and Patel was allotted 14 while the BJP contested 12 seats, a token difference, but nonetheless recognising the JD as the larger party. Modi however, was proved to have made the correct assessment when the verdict came: “We won 12 out of 12 and Chimanbhai won only 11 out of 14. So we became the number one party – we got the upper-hand.”
Three months later Modi was given charge of hammering out the deal with Patel for the assembly polls. He played hard to get, and negotiations continued till the end, resulting in an imperfect alliance. The BJP won 67 seats, just three short of JD, and Modi's stock within BJP shot up for having read the favourable signs.
He was also given charge of coordinating the Gujarat leg of LK Advani's Somnath to Ayodhya Rath Yatra in September 1990 and when the party withdrew support from VP Singh's government at the Centre, the Gujarat unit too pulled out from the coalition. Patel secured support from the Congress, but the BJP and Modi were the ascendant forces. It was almost a decade before he became chief minister, but he was the pivot of the BJP emerging out of the shadows of the JD and Patel in Gujarat.
Will BJP ‘Use’ Nitish As They Did Chimanbhai Patel?
In the years that Nitish Kumar locked horns with Modi, he acted the preacher and taunted, “this is India, you have to wear the topi at times and tilak on other occasions”. But, unlike Sr Paswan, the Bihar chief minister displayed no commitment to India's pluralism in the aftermath of the Gujarat riots and did not follow the former out of NDA.
Nitish Kumar's 'problems' were raised only after sensing the possibility of Modi emerging as the next BJP PM face. The Bihar chief minister was of the view that his was a bigger state and he was a more 'acceptable' face to lead NDA; thus the virtual 'ban' on Modi campaigning in Bihar.
The much hyped hoisting of Nitish Kumar's hand by Modi at a Ludhiana election rally in 2009 was paid back by the chief minister by cancelling an official dinner for delegates of the BJP's National Executive.
Much of this and subsequent events has been put in the past, ostensibly. But has it actually been?
The way the BJP has played its cards, the past is never the past – it seems. In a few weeks we shall know if Nitish Kumar's swan song is also his last hurrah, or if he will be relegated to being the one who ‘legitimised’ BJP in Bihar, like Chimanbhai Patel.
(The writer is an author and senior journalist based in Delhi. He has authored the book ‘The Demolition: India at the Crossroads’ and ‘Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times’. He can be reached @NilanjanUdwin. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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