|Thorny path: Chief minister Nitish Kumar at a programme to launch a BEd course in a Samastipur college on Friday. (Above) Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi in Calcutta earlier in the week. Pictures by The Telegraph and PTI
New Delhi, April 12: Rajnath Singh called Nitish Kumar earlier this week and urged him to “talk things out” before forcing a decision that could result in a splintered NDA in the prelude to the next Lok Sabha polls, a BJP source said.
It is understood that a meeting between the BJP president and the Bihar chief minister might not happen immediately, at least not during Nitish’s visit to the national capital to preside over the Janata Dal (United)’s national executive session, starting tomorrow.
A senior BJP office-bearer stressed that such an interaction was possible if only Nitish sounded “half way” conciliatory towards his Bihar ally, without drumming up pressure on the BJP to announce its prime ministerial candidate for 2014 and repeating his oft-stated condition of projecting a “secular” leader.
“If the cards are already laid out on the table before the leaders even exchange cordialities, what is the scope of a discussion? In this case, Nitish will have pre-empted a positive outcome,” the office-bearer said.
The word from the JD(U) camp — or at any rate from such voices that determinedly spoke out against positioning Narendra Modi as the NDA’s potential PM — was Nitish would serve an ultimatum on the BJP to declare a candidate and then take a call on whether it wanted to stay on in the coalition or quit.
“Narendra Modi is going around the country projecting himself as the prime ministerial face of the BJP. His party is silently watching everything, leaders are showering praise on Modi, hailing him as a great leader, but continue to say the parliamentary board would take a call on the prime ministerial candidate,” JD(U) MP Shivanand Tiwari said, adding: “It is amazing.”
JD(U) president Sharad Yadav is said to be opposed to the idea of breaking with the BJP and his coterie is likely to oppose the move, arguing it would be a “political blunder”.
The Nitish camp, the dominant voice in the party, however, is confident the opposition would be waved off. To keep Sharad happy, the party constitution would be amended to give him a third term as JD(U) president. This, the sources said, would ensure he toes the Nitish line.
Leaders close to Nitish said the weekend meeting’s importance lay in the fact that it was expected to kick-start the process of separation of the JD(U)’s 17-year-old alliance with the BJP. The leaders appeared more or less sure that the parting of ways with the BJP was inevitable and it was now only a matter of finding the opportune moment.
These leaders said Nitish would not precipitate the situation just now and would prefer to build up the tempo and carry it closer to the election to get the maximum effect. Nitish, the leaders close to him said, believes the parting must be so timed to draw the maximum mileage in terms of its impact on the Muslim mind.
As the JD(U) was ostensibly preparing for a showdown, the BJP subtly signalled to Nitish that it too would not buckle down on Modi under the “secularism” alibi. For one, Rajnath, the Gujarat chief minister’s most steadfast endorser as of now, twice repeated in a TV interview that Modi was “secular”. Second, the Shiv Sena, another NDA constituent, had earlier said it would only back Sushma Swaraj as a PM possible because that was Bal Thackeray’s “wish”.
But on Thursday, Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray said in Mumbai that the BJP should first firm up a strategy and name a candidate before his party took a call. He did not mention Sushma. The Akali Dal, the third pillar of the NDA, had earlier pledged its support to the BJP’s pick.
But the nuanced “isolate-Nitish” tactic, admitted BJP sources, might have paid off had the party another big ally to lean its shoulder on. As things stand, the JD(U) is the largest NDA constituent after the BJP and the partnership, dating back to 1994, has so far yielded fruit for both.
As the BJP’s internal circuit hummed with speculation of a “Congress hand” in Nitish’s anti-Modi statements — although there was no cogent explanation for why the Bihar chief minister would take orders from the Congress except for the promise of goodies for his state — the BJP feigned optimism on why the Bihar boss may not bite the bait yet.
Sources said firstly, he lacked an organisational structure to press into use in an election and principally relied on the BJP’s and the Sangh’s cadres to do the micro-management in booths, etc. “On our own, even if he parts company, I can straightaway name at least four places we can win for sure. Bhagalpur, Patna, Darbhanga and Madhubani,” a source claimed.
Second, sources said if Nitish regarded the Congress as a potential ally, it was under a “misplaced” notion.
“The Congress has no votebank. If Nitish thinks he can consolidate the Muslim votes in the process, he may be wrong because Lalu Prasad will step up to the plate and launch a no-holds barred campaign to keep the Muslim votes in a language Nitish cannot compete with,” a Bihar BJP MP said.
On the obverse side, the realists in the BJP admitted that they too would suffer a vote depletion if and when the moment of parting arrived.
The pro-separation group in the JD(U) feels Nitish cannot continue with the BJP even if it refrains from categorically declaring Modi’s name for the top post.
“Lalu Prasad, the master communicator that he is, will go all around the state telling the Muslims that ultimately Narendra Modi will become the Prime Minister and Nitish would support him. He will sound credible for the Muslims,” said a JD(U) leader.