BJP’s Modi dilemma: Nitish Kumar plays for high stakes

There is no mistaking the fact that the BJP is in a bind. With its most significant ally the Janata Dal (U) having made it clear that it would quit the alliance if Narendra Modi is the NDA nominee for prime minister and Shiv Sena’s Uddhav Thackeray categorically stating that there is no way his party would accept a leader foisted by the BJP without due consultations with other NDA constituents, Modi’s chances have suffered a rude jolt.
Uddhav Thackeray is peeved that Modi is better disposed towards his cousin Raj Thackeray than towards him. That leaves the Akali Dal as the sole party in the NDA which is supporting Modi without reservations. There are of course fringe but weighty players like J. Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK, Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress and Navin Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal that Modi has been wooing assiduously but the first two can hardly be relied upon with their past record of unreliability as allies.
Besides, Modi’s image has got so intertwined with anti-Muslim sentiment that even the above parties would think twice before openly joining the BJP camp if Modi is the prime ministerial nominee. The same goes for Chandrababu Naidu of the Telugu Desam who would be wary of joining hands with a leader who the Muslims love to hate.
The BJP’s dilemma, however, stems from the fact that Modi is by far the tallest leader they have with a huge following all over the country. Opinion poll after opinion poll has been showing him leagues ahead of other possible contenders which is an index of his support among the masses, not to speak of his popularity with India Inc.
Were we not in coalition times, the BJP would have not thought twice, but while the party can be hopeful of improving its tally if the elections are fought with Modi as the prime ministerial candidate, the failure to attract allies is haunting the party. A worry linked to this for the party is that Modi has infused a strong dose of confidence and optimism in the BJP cadres and when they are told that it would not be Modi but someone else, their enthusiasm could die down very quickly and irretrievably.
As things stand, the alliance between the BJP and the Janata Dal (United) is delicately perched and there is no knowing whether it would hold or give way. At a recent JD (U) convention in New Delhi, the party’s icon and Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar launched a blistering attack on Modi without naming him so much so that almost his entire speech was devoted to spewing venom on him. Evidently, it was Nitish’s way of wooing the Muslims who constitute 14 to 16 per cent of Bihar’s population. At the same time, it was his way of asserting himself and proclaiming loudly that he cannot be ignored. Besides, his tactic has worked by getting BJP leaders to think again whether Modi would be the right choice for them in the coalition era.
Clearly, the unabashed wooing of Nitish Kumar that the Congress has been indulging in has convinced the JD (U) leader that his is a win-win situation. He reckons that if Modi is replaced with a more acceptable leader he can proudly take credit for it and seek to endear himself particularly to the Muslims for having stalled Modi. If, however, the BJP sticks to its guns and confirms Modi as its candidate for prime ministership, Nitish can always switch sides and align with the Congress which is waiting with open arms to welcome him into the UPA.
Indeed, Nitish’s indulgence towards the Congress was all too evident at the recent JD(U) convention when he chose not to take on the Congress for its mis-governance at the Centre, the spate of scams and corruption scandals and the rampant inflation.
Evidently, the Congress’ overtures to Nitish Kumar — holding out the prospect of special status for purposes of Central largesse and perhaps offering a share in power at the Centre if the JD (U) aligns with the UPA for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections — had had their desired effect on the man who could play a starring role in the formation of the next government in New Delhi.
The four conditions that Nitish Kumar has set for the BJP to continue the alliance were a direct challenge to the senior partner in the NDA and were designed to humble the BJP. It is true, however, that Nitish Kumar has little use for the Congress in the assembly in which the latter is only a bit player. But the same cannot be said of it at the Centre. It has considerable leverage in New Delhi at the head of the UPA and if the BJP plays its cards badly in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections, the Congress could emerge a winner despite its poor record of governance.
In preparing to break with the BJP, the Bihar chief minister is gambling hard. In the assembly, if the BJP were to withdraw support to the Janata Dal (U)-led government, it would be reduced to a minority but it could well remain in the saddle because the BJP would find it an uphill task to vote it out in a trust vote since the BJP co-operation with Lalu Prasad Yadav’s RJD and the Congress in the state is virtually unthinkable.
While more Muslims may vote for the JD (U) since the whole exercise of jettisoning Narendra Modi is designed to covet the minority vote, the upper castes vote bank of 12 to 13 per cent in which the JD (U)-BJP combine had a sizable vote share could move towards the BJP.
Also, if the alliance breaks, it would be on Modi’s nomination as NDA’s prime ministerial candidate, and with both Nitish Kumar and Modi being from the OBC category, the BJP could well walk away with a substantial chunk of backward class votes that are at present with Nitish. That is a possibility that Nitish would have to contend with.
Nitish Kumar’s alliance with Lalu Yadav is virtually ruled out and though he could align with the Congress if he breaks with the NDA, there would be little for him to gain from such an alliance. Since the Muslim vote would in any case move towards his party, sharing it with the Congress would hardly be a good idea.
As for the BJP, even seasoned pundits are hedging on whether fighting the election in Bihar on its own would prove to be a blessing or a curse. The real benefit for the JD (U), if it snaps links with the BJP, would be the possibility of sharing power with the Congress at the Centre. But would it be worth the while for Nitish Kumar if his base in Bihar shrinks while he makes hay in New Delhi?
Nitish Kumar is clearly playing for high stakes. Looking into the crystal-ball, the picture is hazy. But in the end, only time will tell whether the gamble he is playing will pay off.