Modi-Nitish spat leaves Bihar polls wide open

Modi-Nitish spat leaves Bihar polls wide open

New Delhi: Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar’s public spat with alliance partner Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has thrown the upcoming Bihar assembly elections wide open.

Some BJP leaders and analysts say the tension between the BJP and Kumar’s Janata Dal-United, or JD(U), isn’t serious enough to snap their alliance before the October elections. But at least two persons with knowledge of the political developments in Bihar said Kumar had already opened talks with the Congress, which heads the ruling coalition at the Centre. To make the situation murkier, there are sections in both the Congress and the BJP that do not want a tie-up with Bihar’s largest party.

The rift between the BJP and the JD(U) started this month after newspapers carried an advertisement pla-ced by the BJP showing Kumar alongside Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi. Kumar counts the Muslim community as a support base of his party; Modi has been accused by critics of abetting anti-Muslim riots in his state eight years ago.

Kumar ordered a probe into the ad, which was released on the eve of the BJP launching its campaign for the assembly polls, and also cancelled a dinner with the BJP leadership that was visiting Patna. He followed this by returning Rs5 crore that Bihar received from Gujarat to finance flood relief programmes. On Sunday, BJP leader and Bihar’s deputy chief minister Sushil Kumar Modi pulled out of public functions to be addressed by Kumar in protest.

The two persons mentioned above, who did not want to be identified, said the JD(U) was in talks for a tie-up with the Congress, which is weak in Bihar but has won back-to-back national elections and several state polls in the past six years.

A JD(U)-Congress alliance has the potential to consolidate upper caste, backward caste and Muslim votes.

“Although the party (Congress) has improved its position in the recent past, it still has miles to go," said a Congress leader, who also did not want to be identified. “However, we will be able to improve our prospects as we can consolidate Muslims and upper castes to an extent."

“The chief minister (Kumar) believes he can be closer to the Congress ideologically now, after establishing himself as a good administrator. He also feels that a friendly party in power at the Centre would be good for him and the state," said a fourth person, who also didn’t want to be named.

In a March interview with Mint, Kumar said a poor state like Bihar cannot progress without the Central government’s support. “We are improving ourselves. We require two things—larger support from the Central government not only in terms of grants, but also from the Planning Commission," he said.

Congress politicians, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said their party would prefer an alliance with the JD(U) rather than Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), with which its tie-up fell apart before last year’s Lok Sabha polls. However, the RJD continues to offer outside support to the central coalition.

But one of them added: “Nitish is a shrewd politician. One has to consider all pros and cons before antagonizing present friendly parties. Weakening Lalu Prasad may lead to a deep polarization, which would work for JD(U) rather than for the Congress."

Even the BJP is split over continuing the alliance. While the state unit wants to enter the polls with Kumar, central leaders hailing from Bihar advocate snapping ties. The central leadership has summoned state unit chief C.P. Thakur for talks on Monday.

“There is an understanding among Congress leaders that an alliance with the JD(U) would be good," said Bihar-based political analyst Saibal Gupta. “But the Congress has its eyes on the 2014 general election, and it wants to be the single largest party in the Hindi heartland. Nitish Kumar is aware that the Congress would like to finish him (politically)."