2015, Book Excerpts, The Brothers Bihar

The Brothers Bihari: The great hand-grab and a dinner not served

Or, the roots of the animosity between Nitish Kumar and Narendra Modi. Excerpt five from my book

In 2005, Nitish did not want Narendra Modi to come to Bihar to help with the campaign, not even after he fell short in the first elections in February.  That defeat did not tempt him to import Gujarat’s rising star to see if he could add to the NDA kitty. Some in the BJP did suggest it, but Nitish rejected the offer out of hand. The anti-Muslim violence under Modi in 2002 and his subsequent defence of it — calling it a ‘natural reaction’ to the burning of a vestibule full of Hindu pilgrims at Godhra — Nitish believed was one of the reasons Vajpayee lost power in 2004, almost against the run of play. In 2002, Nitish did not part with the NDA, but he took his reservations to Prime Minister Vajpayee, who attempted feeble and oblique corrections. Vajpayee reminded Modi of the obligations of rajdharma, a concept of kingship that imbricates the great Hindu epics. The BJP, though, patted Modi on sans an ion of censure, and celebrated his politics of fracture in Gujarat. After the defeat in the national elections of 2004, Nitish argued, albeit only in private, that Modi had rudely shaken down what Vajpayee had assiduously built up — a liberal, secular temper of governance. ‘Poore Hindustan ke Musalmaan aur dharma-nirpekshtabkon mein bhay aur asuraksha ka message chala gaya Modi ki wajah se, NDA ko haani hui, divisive neta is desh ko acceptable nahin hai,’ … A message of fear and insecurity has gone out to Muslim and secular sections across the country because of Modi, the NDA has suffered. Divisive leaders are not acceptable to this country.

The one thing he had resolved ahead of coming to power was never to allow Modi anywhere near Bihar. Nitish had very different ideas of how he wanted to run the state, should he get the opportunity. When he got it, in November 2005, he presented the parameters of the alliance to the BJP. The alliance would run on a special arrangement: it would be guided by secular ideas and policies of the kind Lohiaite socialists espoused; minority protection and promotion would be one of its directive principles; the BJP or the Sangh would cease to press the Hindutva agenda; Bihar would remain off-limits for Narendra Modi’s politics.

Of course, none of this was written down, as such agreements between political parties seldom are; they are letters of trust notarized in the court of public opinion. Arun Jaitley and Sushil Modi, Nitish’s university friend, who became the deputy chief minister with charge of the finance portfolio, would be the executors of this compact on the BJP’s behalf; Nitish, already signed on as junior NDA ally, promised to play by the BJP’s national ambitions. Sanjay Jha was the intermediary between Nitish and Jaitley, ferrying messages to and fro, helping iron out what differences came up.

In Nitish’s first term, barely any arose. Jaitley and Sushil Modi remained honest to the coalition’s unwritten code, even through periods they may have had cause to quibble. Nitish reopened proceedings on the anti-Muslim violence of 1989 in Bhagalpur, a consequence of the BJP’s Ayodhya temple campaign. The guilty were located and punished. Properties sold by panic-stricken Muslims were restored to them or cash compensation handed out. The government also opened its purse-strings for minority welfare programmes. As finance minister, Sushil Modi signed the cheques; in the BJP’s annals, he must rank as the man who has handed out the biggest kitties to Muslims. He did so uncomplainingly and often at the cost of being chided by partymen.

By the by, that chiding turned to rebuke. During a leadership meeting in Delhi in 2008, some colleagues charged Sushil Modi with having become more loyal to Nitish than to the objectives of the party, of having turned the BJP in Bihar into a ‘subservient tool’ of Nitish.  The chief minister is pursuing his political programmes and objectives, they complained, the BJP is at a standstill, it is not able to express itself, it is not able to expand, it has been reduced to Nitish’s ‘B’ team. Some of these voices belonged to party leaders from Bihar, men like Bhagalpur MP Shahnawaz Hussain and Rajiv Pratap Rudy. Sushil Modi turned to them and wondered if the party wanted to be part of the Bihar alliance at all? He underlined the framework under which the government ran and told his colleagues he would like to hear their views on whether they thought those terms worth their while. His critics went quiet, but that did not mean they were pleased. They wanted to control Nitish rather than be controlled by him, to dominate Bihar’s decision-making, its political discourse. Nitish was not even bothering to consult them, leave alone yield them space on government and governance matters. He was happy to deal with Sushil Modi and, in Delhi, with Jaitley. ‘What use is being part of a ruling coalition in Bihar,’ one BJP MP carped privately to me during that period. ‘What use is it when I cannot even recommend someone for a petty job, cannot assure a small contract, cannot manage to have a troublesome officer transferred? Nitish has hijacked this alliance and our own leaders have allowed him to.’

This lobby had its counterpart in Patna, equally irate, reduced to colourful cribbing: hum log is sarkar ke napunsak dulha hain, we are the impotent grooms of this government. Men like Rameshwar Chaurasia and Nitin Naveen, both MLAs, men like Giriraj Singh, minister in Nitish’s government. Some of them had begun to spend time in Gandhinagar and Ahmedabad as guests of the Gujarat government. Nitish had a good sense what was taking them on journeys across the subcontinent, what they might be coming back with. Narendra Modi was up to something, and he did not like the thought of it. But still it did not bother Nitish as long as he did not have to deal with his Gujarat counterpart. That changed on 10 May 2009.

The NDA, pushing for L.K. Advani as prime minister, had scheduled one of its biggest shows of strength in the 2009 Lok Sabha campaign at Ludhiana on that date. Invitations had gone out to prominent leaders of all constituent parties and NDA chief ministers. K. Chandrashekhar Rao of the Telangana Rashtra Samithi has decided to participate, breaking away from the UPA. This brought new buoyancy to the ranks.

Nitish was reluctant to join the rally, averse to sharing the stage with Narendra Modi. He had requested JDU president Sharad Yadav to go. Two days before the rally, Jaitley called Nitish to say Advani was very keen he came, he had made a personal request. Nitish did not commit himself immediately. Jaitley then put Sanjay Jha on the job, and Jha was eventually able to convince Nitish that they’d go by chartered flight, attend the rally and return the same evening. Short and clinical. It would make Advaniji happy.

Nitish and Sanjay Jha flew to Chandigarh, then drove to the site. The Akali hosts had done the Ludhiana rally Punjabi-style. It was a big and boisterous affair — drums beating, swords flashing, bhangra dancers flexing about. Nitish was probably too taken by the merry commotion to see the prospect he most feared hotfooting it in his direction. He had barely set foot on the crowded stage when Narendra Modi, having quick-marched from the other end, took his hand and held it aloft for the crowd to see. A cheer went up that must have buzzed like a fly in Nitish’s ears. Cameras popped and Nitish must have felt like he was being shot. It was over in a trice. Before Nitish could recover his wits, Modi had left him and retreated to his appointed place on the dais.

When he got back into the car with Sanjay Jha he lavished him with a hot mouthful. He was fuming. He said, ‘Isi liye yahan laaye thhe? Aap jaante the kya hone waala hai, provoke kiya gaya hai mujhe aur aapne mujhe phansaaya,’… Is this why you brought me here? You knew this was going to happen. I have been provoked and you got me here for this. Sanjay Jha tried a stuttering pacification, but Nitish was in no mood to listen. ‘Sab deliberate hai, design hai, kal akhbar mein wohi photo chhapega jo us aadmi ne mera haath pakadke jabardasti khhichwaya. Is tarah ki rajneeti ke main sakht khilaf hoon,’… All of this is deliberate, part of a design, tomorrow’s papers will carry the very picture which that man held my hand up for. I am strongly opposed to this kind of politicking.

It was Sanjay Jha’s turn to be stunned. He hadn’t realized the depth of Nitish’s aversion to Narendra Modi; his anger dripped ghrina, repugnance.

The two did not exchange a word until they reached Patna. The next morning, when Sanjay Jha saw the photograph plastered across the newspapers, he conceded quietly to himself he may have been led into a trap. Nitish was flailing in it. Modi’s Ludhiana grab would return to haunt him and the alliance very soon.

***

In June 2010, a few days before the BJP’s national executive was to meet in Patna, posters began to appear on the city’s walls thanking Narendra Modi for his mahadaan, noble donation, towards relief for Kosi flood victims, which was Rs 5 crore. On the eve of the session, giant hoardings went up on Patna’s vantage crossroads proclaiming Modi’s largesse and expressing gratitude on behalf of the people of Bihar. Many of these were sponsored by lesser lights of the local BJP unit, men like Rameshwar Chaurasia and Nitin Navin. Modi was arriving in Bihar for the first time in many years, he had won successive elections in Gujarat, he was being feted by his partymen. There was an eddy of excitement around him.

Nitish was not in Patna when the BJP session began, he was in north Bihar on a leg of his Vikas Yatra, laying the ground for assembly elections that were scheduled within months. He was returning, though; he had assured Sushil Modi he would host a dinner for BJP leaders before they left Patna. Sushil Modi had suggested Chanakya Hotel, where many BJP leaders were staying. Nitish said no, he would call them all home for a meal, hotels are impersonal. A shamiana had been erected on the lawns of 1 Aney Marg; the kitchen rigged at the back had been given a list of sweetmeats typical to Bihar — balushahi, belgrami, khaja, fine-flour wafers; and, of course, there would be litti and chokha. B.D. Singh, the energetic Maurya Hotel factotum, had been handed turnkey charge of a five-star menu and service, the chief minister himself would tick the boxes on his preparations.

Invitation cards were printed, individually addressed to each member of the BJP national executive and state leaders. The evening before the dinner, they were handed to Shyam Jaju, an old hand who supervised the BJP headquarters in Delhi, for distribution.

When the morning’s papers were brought to Nitish the next day, what he saw left him so irate he couldn’t hold his cup of tea straight. Full-page advertisements had appeared in two of Patna’s largest circulated Hindi dailies — Jagaran and Hindustan — thanking Narendra Modi for the Rs 5 crore flood relief money. The sponsors were a hitherto unknown set that called themselves Friends of Bihar. The issuing agency was the Patna-based Expression Ads owned by a PR conduit called Arindam Guha, well-known to both media and government circles. None of those filters could mask the author of the ad. The text on it was irrelevant, it was the sub-text that burned into Nitish — the Ludhiana photograph leapt off the page: there it was again, Narendra Modi and Nitish Kumar, palms clutched and held aloft.

He thought it a distasteful and offensive taunt; worse than a rude joke, a makhaul, mockery. Narendra Modi had come to Patna, and in one go, twice violated him. He had paid to have a photograph published that Nitish was hustled into and which he wanted deleted from the memory boards. He had made to belittle Bihar by publicising his relief contribution as a favour done.

About the first thing Nitish did on recovering from his rage was call Sanjay Jha. The dinner won’t happen, recall the invitations. Nitish’s tone told Sanjay Jha it was no time to argue or reason. The chief minister also instructed his home staff to have the shamianapulled down and the kitchen put out.

Sushil Modi learnt Nitish had scrapped the dinner with the BJP executive still in session. He wasn’t surprised, having seen and remarked upon the newspaper advertisement himself. His worst fears were taking shape, a showdown between the alliance partners just months short of the elections. He had, in fact, advised party leaders not to hold the session in Patna, he didn’t want to be dealing with intra-alliance irritants when the focus was on the approaching polls. The BJP leadership had settled on Patna for quite the same reason — a session ahead of elections would serve to galvanize party cadres. Sushil Modi tried reasoning with Nitish through intermediaries, but in vain. Galat message chala jaayega chunav ke pehle, he felt, this will send out a wrong message before elections. The deputy chief minister knew he would fetch no quarter. He knew his boss to be a stubborn man, and now he had taken a position, he wouldn’t give. Nitish was curt and unmoved. ‘Galat message chala gaya hai, aap logon ne bheja hai, meri jaankari ke bina yeh sab chhapa kaise?’… The wrong message has already gone out and you people have sent it. How did this get published without my knowledge?

That afternoon Nitish had invited journalists who had arrived from Delhi to cover the BJP session to a casual interaction over lunch at the Chanakya Hotel. He arrived visibly upset and told his guests he had withdrawn the dinner invitation to BJP leaders and was seeking an inquiry into how the advertisement was published. ‘Serious maamla hai, iski tehkikaat hogi,’… it is a serious issue, it will be probed.

Beyond the political immorality Nitish saw in it, there was also a case, if thin, for legal violations. No paid-for material that carried a photograph of the chief minister was meant to be published without the approval of the government’s information department. Rakesh Dubey, a mid-level police officer, was asked to investigate the paper trail of the ad. His mission took him as far as Surat but the tracks had been efficiently wiped thereafter. Dubey gathered that among the backers of Friends of Bihar, an outfit never heard of since, was the BJP MP from Navsari, C. R. Patil, and that a sum of Rs 30 lakhs had been paid, through Expression Ads, as fees.

At this point, Nitish was reconciled to breaking with the BJP. He told confidants to be prepared to strike out on their own in the elections. Gloom had descended on the BJP camp; many top leaders, including then party chief Nitin Gadkari, L.K. Advani and Arun Jaitley, sensed Narendra Modi had caused unnecessary provocation, jolted the alliance. It wasn’t good news. They had lost to the Congress in Delhi a second successive time. Narendra Modi’s public sneer could rob them of another key state.

But Narendra Modi had decided that if Nitish had taken offence, he had reason too. He could not understand what the fuss over the advertisement was all about, he was beginning to grumble about Nitish’s bad manners — how rude and uncultured of him to withdraw a dinner invitation, he ranted to his set of loyalists that night, and why should I not be welcome in an NDA-ruled state? It is time these questions are asked. When he addressed a party rally at the Gandhi Maidan the next afternoon, he rubbed the Gujarat-Bihar comparison in — ‘You folks in Bihar are just about emerging from the ditch you have been in.  Come to Gujarat and see what a prosperous place we have created there…’ He was putting Nitish down. He concluded without naming him.

For the next few days it seemed the break-up was imminent. Nitish announced he had sent back the Rs 5 crore cheque to Gujarat; rebuffed, the BJP leadership reacted: it wasn’t a personal cheque for Nitish, Gadkari countered in a meeting with JDU president Sharad Yadav in Delhi, it was meant for the people of Bihar. Nitish is insulting us. Sharad Yadav was grim and silent, he hadn’t the authority to speak on Nitish’s behalf. He only informed the BJP chief calmly that his indignation may be a little misplaced because from what he knew, the Gujarat government had cashed the spurned cheque into its account the day it arrived.

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