The Bharatiya Janata Party has given notice. By absorbing Tripura’s six Trinamool Congress legislators, whom it had previously roped in to support Ram Nath Kovind’s candidacy for vice-president, it has confirmed the message of the shift in Bihar. If Mamata Banerjee is to be believed, West Bengal is the BJP’s next target. But although Nitish Kumar says no one can challenge Narendra Modi in the 2019 parliamentary polls, if anyone does do so, it could well be the Bihar chief minister himself. Not directly, but he alone could try to persuade loyalists that they would enjoy a greater chance of retaining power if the National Democratic Alliance is identified with his kinder gentler face. The gamble, giving the Trojan Horse concept a novel twist, may not succeed but Mr Modi should watch out for the last throw of Mr Kumar’s hat in the prime ministerial ring.
Those who accuse the Janata Dal (United) leader of immorality should recall the old story of Ronald Reagan being asked how a president could be an actor. “How can a president not be an actor?” he retorted. Ethics are for losers. By claiming he knew of Mr Kumar’s plan to wreck the Mahagathbandhan (grand alliance) formed with Congress and the Rashtriya Janata Dal to thwart the BJP in Bihar but did nothing about it, Rahul Gandhi exposed his own ineffectiveness. But if he is the loser, it may not necessarily mean Mr Modi will be the ultimate winner. With his keen nose for which way the wind blows, Mr Kumar may feel the idea of India still means something to voters who may support the BJP but are not obsessed by Hindutva and find the “lynchistan” label degrading.
His opportunity will also arise if the BJP is not able to make up the numbers on its own, or if the collective NDA leadership seeks other options in 2019. That seems far-fetched now, but so did the BJP-NDA defeat in 2004. The fate of the ruling Congress under the reformist prime minister, P. V. Narasimha Rao, was sealed long before 1996 elections. But although the BJP expected a walkover, voters had other ideas. The Janata Dal-United Front experiment showed that people were prepared to try out an alternative to the BJP. In fact, the electorate did not turn to the BJP until after the 1998 Chennai declaration when the saffron brigade shrewdly decided to place the Ayodhya-Hindutva question in cold storage.
Lal Krishna Advani was the obvious prime ministerial choice in 2004 and 2009. Mr Kumar was in the running for the NDA chief’s job in 2014. But Mr Advani’s failure in the two successive polls of 2004 and 2009 polls gave Mr Modi his chance, especially since the BJP scored an independent victory. He worked alone and he worked in the dark. Mr Kumar understandably pulled his JD(U) out of the NDA after the BJP chose Mr Modi as the coalition’s prime ministerial candidate without asking the coalition.
No doubt the prime minister needs no warning of his latest protégé’s ambitions and skills. His ability to weigh up the odds and extract the maximum dividend from any event was demonstrated in August 1999 when he quit Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s cabinet as railway minister, taking the blame for the Gaisal disaster when the Brahmaputra Mail from Dibrugarh, packed with soldiers and security police crashed into the stationary Avadh Assam Express because of a signalling error. According to unofficial estimates, more than 1,000 people, including 90 soldiers, were killed.
It’s a measure of his resilience that although Mr Vajpayee let him go, he was soon back in the cabinet with another portfolio. The reputation for caring he had acquired in Jayaprakash Narayan’s movement and the socialist principles he was believed to have absorbed under Ram Manohar Lohia appealed to Mr Vajpayee, and possibly afforded relief from the ideological dogma of other colleagues. His resignation as chief minister the day after his JD(U) won only two Lok Sabha seats against 20 in the previous election further enhanced his image. That was four years after Mr Kumar’s JD(U)-BJP combine swept the assembly polls. The high turnout of women and young voters and the absence of the usual poll bloodshed testified to Mr Kumar’s charisma.
Given the short memory and lax moral standards of India’s winner-takes-all society, Mr Kumar may be judged by how he projects himself and not by any absolute yardstick. Supported by a team of accomplished publicists, the BJP’s “rock-star politician” (quoting Time magazine) enthralls the country with his readiness to sing his own praises and to pander to what Jawaharlal Nehru once deplored as the minority complex of the majority. It’s the NDA’s one-point programme. The faithful probably believe that even Bihar’s chief minister, who was accusing the BJP of spreading “communal poison” only two years ago, has seen the light at last.
Little can they know of what stratagems the resourceful Nitish Kumar might have up his sleeve. The reasons he gave for changing sides can’t have convinced anyone. He knew well enough when he and Laloo joined hands in 2015 that his partner was already a convicted criminal. Nor has Mr Kumar abandoned a bunch of crooks to throw in his lot with a lily-white group of saints. The BJP’s Narottam Mishra, who was thrown out of the Madhya Pradesh assembly for bribing newspapers, is still Number Two in the state party. Mr Kumar’s standard of corruption is only a flag of convenience to replace the banner of communalism which would have offended his new partner. Moreover, Bihar’s few and less assertive Muslims don’t present the same challenge as in the UP.
According to Ms Banerjee, investigating agencies and other institutions are being subverted in Bengal too to serve the Centre’s purpose. It is, of course, only a coincidence that Mr Kovind’s move to Rashtrapati Bhavan placed Bengal and Bihar under the same governor, a former Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh activist whom the BJP national secretary Rahul Sinha calls “a soldier of (the) Modi brigade”. Given Ms Banerjee’s reported telephone spat with Keshari Nath Tripathi, Mr Sinha’s comment at once prompted Trinamool Congress functionaries to gloat that the cat was out of the bag. Since Mr Tripathi took over in Bihar on June 20, any gubernatorial assessment that influenced the Centre must have been his predecessor’s. Mr Kumar’s support for Mr Kovind’s presidential candidature clinched his break with the grand alliance.
Ideally, Mr Kumar should seek a fresh mandate from voters. His mandate was to keep the BJP out; instead, he has brought it in. Having done so, he is unlikely to be content playing fourth fiddle in the NDA. Realising there is no national opposition any longer and the grand alliance only a pipe dream, he is more likely to spend the next two years burnishing a new image so that the NDA presents a more acceptable face to those who have no quarrel with its basic objectives but baulk at current excesses.
The writer is the author of several books and a regular media columnist