The Telegraph
Tuesday , October 2 , 2012
Since 1st March, 1999
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New equations put to test old ties
BJP left out in Nitish drive for Bihar rights

Kishanganj, Oct. 1: To report chief minister Nitish Kumar from the trail these days is to often wonder whether he has forgotten he has significant bedfellows.

He never refers to the BJP, not even in the remove of privacy; he gives cause to speculate whether he remains cognizant of an entity called the National Democratic Alliance (NDA).

The demand for special category status to Bihar, as Nitish himself would tell you, is an all-party cause formalised by a meeting of leaders from across the political spectrum. Slowly but surely, Nitish has completely appropriated the campaign for himself and his Janata Dal (United), unwilling to share claim or credit even with his installed ally.

The BJP can barely quarrel with the architecture and arrangements of Nitish’s Adhikar Yatra for, on the face of it, it is an exclusively JD(U) effort aimed at galvanising party ranks for the November 4 Adhikar Rally the chief minister plans to address in Patna’s Gandhi Maidan. So Nitish’s saffron allies cannot quibble that their leaders are not welcome on stage, that their flag and symbol has been banished, from the “adhikar” caravan, that they find neither partnership nor mention in what has become the Nitish government’s signature programme. But off quote they admit they are rankled and they accuse Nitish of “running away singly” with what is a jointly adopted battle.

Humko darkinaar kar diya hai,” a senior BJP leader said, “khud poora credit lena chahte hain (We have been sidelined, he wants to hog all the credit).”

The JD(U)’s riposte to such accusations has been blunt: the Adhikar Yatra is a party initiative, not a joint venture like the Bihar government. They don’t fail to mention they have oft been given cause to raise similar objections over BJP-Sangh activities in the state. Although he has refrained from speaking out publicly, Nitish is known to have told his allies that their concerted efforts to build a base among Bihar’s extremely backward classes (EBCs) didn’t leave him pleased.

The EBCs are part of the votebank Nitish has consolidated with affirmative action measures and the JD(U) views the BJP’s bid to woo them as intrusion. The “Vedana (hurt) Rally” called yesterday by BJP MP from Purnea, Uday Singh, to protest the alleged apathy of the Nitish government couldn’t have done the compact of the alliance any good. Nitish was touring the Purnea neighbourhood while Uday Singh’s “Vedana Rally” unfolded and he would have heard echoes of an ally railing against him.

“The BJP leadership could have reined in their MP,” remarked a JD(U) leader in Nitish’s entourage. “What could it mean that they chose not to?”

The JD(U)-BJP government in Bihar has run almost friction-less for seven years. But the same cannot be said of political relations between the allies. Its roughest rub is, of course, the proxy tussle between Nitish and Narendra Modi, which has almost turned metaphoric of the “secular”-“communal” discourse.

The last time Nitish mounted a BJP stage was a year ago when he flagged off LK Advani’s “Jan Chetna Yatra” from Sitabdiara. His chief adversary Lalu Prasad pounced on it to score brownie points with minorities — this is the man who I had arrested on the way to destroying the Babri Masjid, now Nitish is gleefully waving him on! The sense in the Nitish camp then was that he had miscalculated in agreeing to be present.

But there are other markers of divergence, if not of conflict. Nitish chose to support Pranab Mukherjee for President rejecting the BJP’s choice of PA Sangma. It contested the Uttar Pradesh polls singly and will do the same in Gujarat. It has refused to endorse the BJP’s demand that the Manmohan Singh government resign on account of corruption charges.

On the day Advani demanded a special session of Parliament owing to Mamata Banerjee’s withdrawal of support to the UPA, Nitish declared he was ready to support “anyone” who promises to grant special status to Bihar. He was vague on whether that included a Congress-led government and given the ideological and political leanings of Nitish, it is unlikely he will rush to support the Congress. But if only as a dare, he had opened a possibility.

The JD(U) deeply suspects the Sangh of plotting a heist on its EBC votebank. The BJP has begun to suspect, equally deeply, Nitish is prospecting a go-it-alone option. It sees in the way the “Adhikar Rally” is being conducted a bid to widen and strengthen the base of the JD(U).

“This is clearly a two birds-with-one-stone strategy,” a senior BJP leader told The Telegraph.

The BJP leader, who was speaking on condition of anonymity, said Nitish is campaigning for special status and at the same time consolidating his worker base. “This is the first time district units of the JD(U) are handing out party badges, this is cadre-building, nothing else and it is aimed at objectives that go beyond the November 4 rally,” the BJP leader said.

There surely exists a section in the JD(U) that is nudging Nitish Kumar to sunder the alliance and contest the next general elections alone. They are citing two reasons to support their case. Freed of the BJP, Nitish will attract greater support from the minorities, enough, they say, to compensate for losses he will incur on account of forsaking the BJP. Two, and probably more significant, Nitish will give himself a shot at 40 Lok Sabha seats instead of the 25 he contests under arrangements of the alliance. That could make him a bigger player in the next Lok Sabha.

Nitish has heard this argument out, patiently and repeatedly. There is no evidence to suggest, at least yet, that he stands entirely persuaded.