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.

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