Even as crude provincial caricature, it was a tableau tough to locate in Bihar until very recently. A dummy Nitish Kumar dolled up as object of derision, a placard in hand that proclaimed: “Alpasankhyak voteron ko hum apna daamaad bhi banane ko taiyaar hain….I am even ready to accept minority voters as sons-in-law…” Beside him, a live prop as stereotype of the minority voter. Another representing the Congress and proclaiming it is willing to “gamble away the nation” for minority votes. In the backdrop to such coarse burlesque, the purported solution: an enthroned representation of Narendra Modi.
It was partly the public mounting of such and similar montages that lit the fuse to communal clashes in mixed settlements off Bettiah in north-west Bihar last week. A few days before the Bettiah hostilities, a skirmish had erupted in Katihar over burial rights and quickly contained. A few days after Bettiah, an argument over a dhaba menu near Nawada triggered unfounded rumour-mongering, criminal rousing of passions and two violent deaths.
After nearly a quarter of a century of communal accord, sectarian strife has suddenly begun to leapfrog across Bihar. Perhaps the only redeeming feature of 15 years of the Lalu-Rabri regime was that it never allowed a communal flareup; it was, in fact, an exemplar of how to keep communal peace. Through the first eight years of his rule in partnership of the BJP, Nitish ensured much the same. Indeed more. He was the one to reopen the Bhagalpur riots cases and hand out punishment to those guilty of the horrid anti-Muslim violence that followed the passage of the Ram Rath Yatra through Bhagalpur in 1989. But that seems to have suddenly changed. Bihar has seen more than a dozen major and minor flashpoints over the last two months. It cannot be a coincidence that is also the period since Chief Minister Nitish Kumar broke from the NDA on the Narendra Modi question and jettisoned the BJP from power in Bihar.
But of all the reasons being justly being ascribed to the eruption of near-forgotten hostilities, the main probably lies close to chief minister Nitish Kumar’s door: it is the steady, though mostly unpublicised, growth of the RSS and its loosely affiliated outfits during the eight years of NDA rule during which the BJP winged Nitish in government.
The Bettiah tableau was the handiwork of apparatchik of one such outfit, a local ‘akhara’ or martial arts club. The ‘akhara’ professes no political affiliation, allowing the BJP and the Sangh insulation from any role in wrongdoing, but the object of its allegiance is clearly stated: Narendra Modi. “The speed with which they have come into their own is evidence of the fact that the BJP and the RSS had been preparing the ground for confrontation,” a close aide of Nitish Kumar told The Telegraph today, “The have clearly benefited from their long stint in power. We have known they were expanding their base and laying the ground for Narendra Modi’s kind of politics to become the dominant political discourse, but as allies in government we had limitations. Now the fight is in the open.”
Nitish Kumar has labelled these incidents a “political conspiracy to inspire social insecurity” and declared he would put the perpetrators down. Senior colleague and Bihar agriculture minister, Narendra Singh, has called for banning the RSS for resuming the “Hindi-Hindu-Hindusthan” demand. JDU MP Shivanand Tiwari has assaulted his party’s former partner frotally. “They have historically been against the ethos of India, the killers of Mahatma Gandhi, they have now revealed their true colours and are prepared to indulge in all kinds of lies and provocations to divide society and draw electoral benefit. How is it that within weeks of the BJP going out of power such incidents have begun to take place every other day? Did anyone in the BJP even dare stick a poster of Narendra Modi in Bihar, let alone advertise him in such blatant fashion? The fact is that after being kicked out of government, they are feeling free to indulge in their core politics which is divisive.”
But if JDU voices are quick to issue blame, they are slow to bear any liability. Off record, some of them admit they erred in “restraining” BJP and Sangh cadres from “using political power” to amplify their sphere of influence in Bihar over the last eight years, but none will make that “error” a stated regret yet. The Nitish dispensation should have known better about a party that has a frontburner agenda and a backburner agenda, that has core issues and non core issues, devised to suit the requirements of power. He should have known better about allies like Narendra Modi who have fundamental quarrels with the constitutional conception of the Republic of India, who are outspoken about the opposition to minority identity, minority rights, perhaps even minority protection. Modi wants an “equal” India, a mere euphemism for denying the minorities their legitimate right.
Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), though, is blunt in fixing the blame on Nitish. “It is a known fact after Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, Bihar has seen the biggest floor expansion of the Sangh in recent years,” RJD spokesman Manoj Jha said, “This could not have happened without Nitish’s consent.” A top Bihar bureaucrat, now retired, was not prepared to be as harsh on Nitish, though he too believed the Sangh had been able to use power to push itself. “Like Lalu, Nitish too stuck by the secular ethic and did not allow any communal nonsense all these years,” he said, “But it is also true that while the Sangh feared Lalu and its operations were restricted, it functioned fearlessly during NDA rule. It is not my case Nitish encouraged them, but surely, the Sangh was able to operate freely and with more than some help from BJP ministers in the government. They enjoyed a sort of sanction.”
As early as early 2012, Nitish had expressed his annoyance to the BJP over the manner in which the Sangh was holding special felicitation camps and fetes for select backward and dalit communities, many of which formed the core of the JDU votebank. JDU bosses were also upset with, and suspicious of, extended trips RSS boss Mohan Bhagwat was taking to Bihar. Bhagwat also spent time in Patna and Gaya following the NDA split in Bihar, and JDU leaders believe his recurrent visits are aimed at “reviving the central Sangh agenda” in the state. “The Sangh has a project in Bihar, it is quite apparent,” a senior JDU leader said, “And after the break up, it is going to follow that project more vigorously. It cannot not be linked to furthering the BJP’s electoral interests in 2014.”
The Telegraph had reported friction between the JDU and the BJP over the Sangh’s mission to spread its base back in Febaruary 2012. Nitish had objected strongly with the BJP leadership over what he saw as the Sangh’s attempt to “usurp the JDU’s core constituency”, but he kept his anger private at the time in the larger interest of keeping the alliance. That alliance is now gone, Nitish has been left the task of dealing with its consequences. They are about as unrefined and ugly as the Bettiah effigies.