Telegraph Calcutta

Endgame: Why Nitish Kumar broke with Narendra Modi and the other Modi’s role in it

 

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The Big Fight

An except from my new omnibus volume “The Brothers Bihari” on Laloo Yadav and Nitish Kumar on why and how Nitish Kumar fought with Narendra Modi and eventually broke away

 

Dream governance was rudely and repeatedly disrupted by troubled sleep. The NDA partners of Bihar had turned bitter bedfellows, they had rolled to far sides, mistrust had crept and lay in between. There were three in the marriage; it had become unworkable. Because he abhorred taking Narendra Modi’s name, Nitish called him the ‘third party’: ‘We made a great pair all these years, there were no problems between us. It is only when a third party began to interfere from outside that we broke apart.’ He thought Modi’s shadow an illicit violation of the JDU-BJP compact in Bihar.

One day at a rally near Gaya in mid-2012, Narendra Modi posters popped up below Nitish’s stage with a staccato burst of ‘Desh ka neta kaisa ho? Narendra Modi jaisa ho!’ It left Nitish stunned and livid. He had been playing the all-is-well charade for a while, but he knew all was not well. Every day the rift over Modi was becoming sharper, more apparent. Ministers came out of cabinet meetings and jeered their chief minister for opposing Narendra Modi. Spokespersons of the two parties duelled in television debates. In the public eye, Nitish’s government lost the complexion of solutions; it began to look like a problem.

But Nitish had seen this coming. More than anyone else in the JDU, he had a sense of the Sangh Parivar’s pulse. He suspected a split might become inevitable soon. He suspected Modi’s surge to the top of the BJP was irrevocable. It was not for nothing that he kept the BJP out of the Adhikar Yatra—the signature public campaign of his second term—launched more than a year before the split. He could well have made it an NDA platform, but he did not want any credit gone to the BJP. His Adhikar Yatra he used to rally the JDU’s workers across the state, to give them a cause and an identity separate from the BJP and the NDA. He was preparing them for a break.

***

In 2005, Nitish had said no to getting Narendra Modi to come to Bihar to help with the campaign, not even after he fell short in the first of two assembly elections held that year. 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. Nitish believed that the antiMuslim violence under Modi in 2002 and his subsequent defence of it—calling it a ‘natural reaction’ to the burning of a train vestibule full of Hindu pilgrims at Godhra—was one of the reasons Vajpayee lost power in 2004. Nitish was a Cabinet minister in Vajpayee’s NDA government in 2002 but he had not quit over Gujarat. He had merely taken his reservations to Vajpayee, who attempted feeble and oblique corrections. Vajpayee had reminded Modi of the obligations of rajdharma, a concept of kingship that imbricates the great Hindu epics. The BJP, though, endorsed Modi 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-nirpeksh tabkon 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 by 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; 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 friend from university, 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 ambition of regaining power at the Centre. 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 problems 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 against those guilty of the antiMuslim violence of 1989 in Bhagalpur, a consequence of the BJP’s Ayodhya temple campaign. The culprits were located and punished. Properties sold by panic-stricken Muslims were restored to them or cash compensation handed out. The 383 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 doles 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 tore into Sushil Modi for behaving 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 counterparts 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, and what messages they might be coming back with. Narendra Modi was upto something, and Nitish did not like the thought of it. But it still did not bother him 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 had decided to participate, breaking away from the UPA. This had brought new buoyancy to NDA ranks.

Nitish was reluctant to join the rally, averse as he was to sharing a 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 rally ground. The Akali hosts had planned the Ludhiana rally Punjabi-style. It was a big and boisterous affair—drums beating, swords flashing, bhangra dancers flexing about. Nitish was 385 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 quickmarched 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 after the rally, 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 the instrument of leading Nitish into a trap; Nitish was flailing in it. Modi’s Ludhiana hand-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 the big fight 386 the brothers bihari walls thanking Narendra Modi for his mahadaan, noble donation, towards relief for Kosi flood victims: a sum of 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 to the Gujarat chief minister 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. Excitement eddied 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 preparations once he arrived back in Patna. 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 BJP hand who supervised the party 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 subtext 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. Nitish 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 publicizing 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 shamiana pulled 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 the big fight 388 the brothers bihari reasoning with Nitish through intermediaries, but in vain. Galat message chala jaayega chunav ke pehle, he argued, 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 that 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 came 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 covered. Dubey gathered that among the backers of Friends of Bihar, an outfit never heard of before or 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 the then party chief Nitin Gadkari, L.K. Advani and Arun Jaitley, sensed Narendra Modi had 389 caused unnecessary provocation, jolted the alliance. It wasn’t good news. They had lost to the Congress at the Centre a second successive time in 2009. Narendra Modi’s public sneer could rob them of another key state.

But Narendra Modi could not understand what the fuss over the advertisement was all about. He grumbled 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 his speech without naming him. For the next few days it seemed a parting of ways 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 back. Nitish had pre-publicized Vikas Yatra outings in the vicinity of Patna and two of his cabinet colleagues were meant to accompany him—Sushil Modi and Nand Kishore Yadav, both of the BJP. They were advised by their party not to go until the row had been resolved. Sushil Modi took ill, Nand Kishore Yadav discovered urgent personal engagements. Neither went. the big fight 390 the brothers bihari The crisis was getting out of hand. The government was on hold. Neither side was willing to explore a way out. The one man who could have played peacemaker was far away; immediately after the Patna session, Arun Jaitley had set off with his family on a cruise vacation across faraway seas.

Sanjay Jha found himself helpless and confounded in the tangle. He was relatively new to such scrapping between leaders, he was rattled. After much trying, he got through to Jaitley on the phone and told him things had turned much worse after Nitish’s decision to spurn Narendra Modi’s cheque. To hear out the minutiae of the squabble on holiday left Jaitley a little exasperated—how could a successful alliance break because two fellows had flung their egos in the way, people will laugh at the NDA, we will lose Bihar, do something, I am sure something can be done, just hold on a few days. Before hanging up, Jaitley left Sanjay Jha with one underlined instruction: do what you may but don’t leave Nitish’s side until I return, hear him out, keep him engaged, don’t leave Patna.

Jaitley must have burned the phone lines thereafter. When Bihar BJP leaders met at Gadkari’s Ferozeshah Road residence in Delhi a couple of days later, the mood was calmer. Some of them—Shahnawaz, Rudy, Giriraj Singh—were still keen on pulling out: we’ll see what happens, Nitish cannot be allowed to hold the alliance to ransom in this fashion, he cannot dictate to us who goes to Bihar and who does not. Sushil Modi fought them off strongly. The alliance was critical to the BJP, he argued, and Nitish was its anointed leader, we must be able to accommodate his reservations. He carried the day. On his return to Patna, Sushil Modi organized a meeting at the residence of C.P. Thakur, then the Bihar BJP president. Anant Kumar and Dharmendra Pradhan came from Delhi, several top leaders of the Bihar BJP were called in. Nitish was the only one representing the JDU, but he was a handful. ‘Deewar ki 391 likhawat padh leejiye, aap log zameen ki rajneeti karte hain to samajh leejiye ki Bihar ka itihaas badalne jaa raha hai aur aap log usko barbad karne par tule hain. Agar yeh alliance raha to 180-200 seat aayegi chunav mein, aur aap is gathbandhan ko todke woh mauka ganwa bhi sakte hain.’ . . . Read the writing on the wall. If you are politicians with your ears to the ground you should understand that the history of Bihar is about to be rewritten, but you are bent on destroying this. If this alliance survives, we are going to get 180-200 seats in the coming election, but you can also choose to rob this alliance of that opportunity.

The BJP said little. The alliance and the government had survived. Narendra Modi stood expressly barred from any political role in Bihar that day on. On the ride back from the meeting, Nitish turned to a colleague, who had waited out the meeting and said sheepishly: ‘I hope I did not overstate my case saying we are about to get 180-200 seats. It is not in my nature to make such claims, but I was very angry, and I wanted them to know what they were putting at stake.’ Nitish was to obliquely reveal the bar on Narendra Modi a few days later. He told a journalist who had wondered, provocatively, if he would invite Narendra Modi for the ensuing election campaign: ‘Bihar mein ek hi Modi kafi hai.’ . . . One Modi is enough for Bihar. He meant his deputy Sushil. The alliance won 206 seats in the elections that followed. It was a landslide. The JDU bagged 115, a whisker from a majority of its own. Nitish settled into office more securely. But when Narendra Modi won his third term in Gujarat two winters later, he turned quickly aggressive and reached out long distance to score a hole in Nitish’s cushion.

***

A month before he pulled the plug on his seventeen-yearalliance in June 2013 and robbed the BJP of its biggest political partner, I went to meet Nitish at 1 Aney Marg. We sat for close the big fight 392 the brothers bihari to two hours under his favoured gazebo on the lawns. It was a hot afternoon but the gazebo is Kumar’s preferred adda, or haunt, on the premises. Revolving fans mounted on wooden posts whirred overhead. Home-made savouries lay served in china bowls on a centre-table—puffed rice tossed in mustard oil, onions and green chillies, roasted gram, boiled peas. Two of his most trusted political aides—R.C.P. Singh and Sanjay Jha—and a senior official sat with Nitish and when I arrived and took the chair beside him, we made a semi-circle.

Nitish was relaxed and expansive, but quick and careful to lay down the rules. ‘Let’s keep this informal, nothing for immediate publication. Tea?’ Without waiting for an answer he signalled a liveried attendant to fetch a fresh round.

Before long the conversation turned to Narendra Modi. Would he keep the alliance if Modi was named to lead? It was as if the very mention of Modi caused his brow to crumple. His grey stubble to prickle. His hairline lips to collapse tighter into each other. His eyes to begin boring through his rimless oblong glasses. He held the arms of his chair, mulled intently, then let out a simple declarative sentence: ‘Us vyakti par koi compromise nahin hoga. Jo vyakti desh ke logon mein bhay paida karta ho uski mahatvakaanksha ke liye apne usoolon ko sati nahi kar sakta. Aap kisi bhram mein mat rahiye.’ . . . There shall be no compromise on that man. I am not prepared to sacrifice my principles at the altar of the ambitions of a man who creates fear in the minds of my countrymen. Have no doubts on that count.

The NDA’s 2009 defeat had left Nitish totally convinced Narendra Modi’s brand of politics was a game of diminishing returns; people, by and large, reacted poorly to sectarian confrontation. He had added Varun Gandhi to the list of those who had hurt the NDA with their truculent posturing towards minorities. In Uttar Pradesh, Nitish had concluded, it was Varun’s virulent Pilibhit campaign that had pushed Muslims 393 towards the Congress which, against all expectations, won twenty-two Lok Sabha seats from the state. Nitish was not ready to allow the communal spew to spill over into Bihar. He had set condition after condition, set deadline after deadline, and without ever naming him, sharpened his critique of Modi’s sectarian image. Consistently he had played a Hofbrauhaus game around his Gujarati bête noire. Nearly everybody that goes looking for Hofbrauhaus in the lanes off Munich’s Marienplatz town square is driven there by its notorious history. Hofbrauhaus is the beerhall where Adolf Hitler formed the Nazi party in 1920. The grand Bavarian arcades and oak gardens of Hofbrauhaus served as a celebration of Nazi ways and values through the lightning decade-and-a-quarter spanning the 1930s and 1940s that changed the shape of the world. It remains a vibrant and popular dive for dining and drinking. Live symphonies boom about the high-arched halls in waves of exhilaration, beermaids shuffle about the bench tables decanting foamed oceans of the house drink. Yet nobody on the premises so much as whispers ‘Adolf’ today, not to talk of Hitler, the cardinal disrepute of this house of repute. It’s a funny self-proscription, a quaint pretence hatched between consciousness and cognizance. Hofbrauhaus, for all its imposed amnesia, is a relic to Hitler but nobody there mentions his name. Narendra Modi, for all the third-person pronouns and adjectives employed, was the man Nitish was always crossing out, but he never brought that name to his lips. Privately, he had lobbied feverishly with the BJP leaders to prevent Modi from taking the centrestage. Till about a year before, he had been assured by Gadkari that the BJP would do nothing without consulting him, assured, in fact, that any future leader of the NDA would be chosen through a consensus in the alliance. But soon thereafter Gadkari was relieved of the BJP presidency and his assurance lay vacated.

Barely a month before, in April 2013, Nitish had raised the pitch against Modi at a session of his party’s national executive in Delhi: ‘Yeh desh ek model se nahin chalne wala, is desh mein bahut saare logon ko, bahut models ko, saath leke chalna padega.’ . . . No single model is going to run in this country, in this country you will have to take many people, many models along. He defined a deadline to the BJP: name your man for PM by December 2013.

I took Nitish back to the winter of 2011 in Saharsa. Hadn’t his worries over Narendra Modi begun to resurface as early as then? He had spelt it out in an interview to me for The Telegraph: ‘The leader of the NDA should be a man of secular image and no rough edges, he should be acceptable not only to NDA partners but should enjoy acceptability across the board; we live in a pluralistic country and we cherish those values.’ It was the first time he had spoken of what was ideal, what he wanted, what ought to be, rather than what oughtn’t. I had asked if that meant he was ruling out Narendra Modi and he said he did not wish to name names: mai ne kabhi kisi ka naam nahin liya, don’t go on individuals, go on what they mean and represent. We moved to the dinner table at the Circuit House, and I asked again, this time informally, if he had meant Modi. He said again that he would not name names, adding, buddhiman ko ishara kaafi hai, to the intelligent, the merest hint should suffice. I got the impression he distinctly did not have present company in mind when he said that; he was sending a signal out to the BJP brass. A few months later, in June 2012, he added a critical rider to his Saharsa conditions in an interview to P.R. Ramesh and Ashok K. Mishra of The Economic Times: the BJP should consult NDA partners well ahead of the 2014 general election and announce its prime ministerial candidate. His message was clear: he was not prepared to be strung along by the BJP and have Narendra Modi imposed on NDA partners as fait accompli at too late a juncture. A new migraine had begun to trouble his sleep. He had warded off Narendra Modi from Bihar, but what if he became his boss in Delhi? As future prime minister, or even as the NDA’s prime ministerial nominee? He wouldn’t be led into that situation. As a close ally for more than a decade-and-a-half, Nitish had a good sense of how the BJP and the Sangh worked. During his years as minister in the Vajpayee government, he had acquired wide penetration in the Sangh Parivar warren—sleeper contacts, acquaintances, friends, men like L.K. Advani, Arun Jaitley, Nitin Gadkari. Lately, he had also pulled Sanjay Jha, Jaitley confidant and key alliance intermediary, to his side. Sushil Modi and Sarju Rai he knew since there were all university students. Rai had shifted base to Ranchi and now worked for the BJP in Jharkhand, but he was intermittently in touch. There is no cause to believe Rai was ever disloyal to the causes of the BJP, but he was a finely nuanced man, a man to value old friends and friendships. He celebrated the JDU-BJP alliance and offered advice to both sides when asked. He had worked hard, and often singlehanded, to build the fodder case against Laloo Yadav, and wished the government that had replaced the Laloo regime well. He was pained to see it come apart. But being a man of few words, he seldom spoke openly about it. So Nitish’s inputs on developments within the BJP were rich. He had a far better sense of the subterranean stirrings in the Parivar than many BJP leaders themselves. Information was always coming his way, formal, informal, hushed only-between-you-and-me nuggets that helped him piece together the shape of things to come. To him, there was no confusion about the shape emerging: it was the shape of the man whose name he abhorred bringing to his lips.

 

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2014, Bihar, Reportage, Telegraph Calcutta

Why Development Doesn’t Pay, And Caste Does: The ABCD of Bihar Elections

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Blacktop highways, powerlit villages, teeming schools, beehive health centres and block offices are not the news from Bihar any longer. The news from Bihar is you fetch no votes for any of that.

All along the 300-odd-kilometre journey I made north-east of Patna to this rural outpost, the state and its people offered resounding testimony that chief minister Nitish Kumar’s dream of fashioning “Naya Bihar” is a fiction of his fancies, no more. It’s a dream he had the silly cheek to dream; it has turned into a nightmare slapping him. If he thought — as he told The Telegraph repeatedly in 2010 and 2011 — that he had created a new Bihari identity that overarched caste and creed and endorsed development with common purpose, he thought erroneously and fatally ahead of time.

Constituency after constituency, Bihar is voting neither indigenous work nor imported wave, but current and counter-current of caste and creed. If Nitish is floundering in those currents it is down to him having no history of winning a mandate on his own. He wrested Bihar from Laloo Yadav after a decade-long effort only upon allying with the BJP. His wager that he had achieved enough through governance to hold his ground is about to become a sorry manifesto of how poorly he read the ground he has ruled for nine years. Democratic victories in Bihar are not yet achievable through delivery; they remain a tribal rite of alliance-building, cynical but effective “jod-tod”. Continue reading “Why Development Doesn’t Pay, And Caste Does: The ABCD of Bihar Elections”

2014, Bihar, Reportage, Telegraph Calcutta

Between Anisur And Akhtarul, The Confounded Bihari Muslim

Between one Akhtarul and one Anisur could lie the scrambled clues to the confounded run of the Muslim voter in Bihar.

The former junked his JD(U) ticket from Kishanganj on Tuesday in the name of preventing a split in the Muslim vote. The latter sits a little shaken if the move will leave the minority voter confounded mid-election. Anisur sounds not terribly pleased with what Akhtarul has done. “We have prospered under Nitish Kumar as has the whole state, such decisions spread confusion, this is not the time to be confused.”

As general secretary of the Imarat-e-Sharia, a pre-Independence charitable body with a jurisdiction spread across Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha and parts of Bengal, Maulana Anisur Rahman believes he has commitments to the community that transcend the exigencies of an election.

“We must be able to think ahead,” he sagely counsels no one in particular. “This is an important election, probably the most important we have seen in recent times, this is a time for united approach, not confusion. What Akhtarul has done creates khalbali(confusion), I find it hard to approve.” Continue reading “Between Anisur And Akhtarul, The Confounded Bihari Muslim”

2014, Bihar, Reportage, Telegraph Calcutta

In The Backseat Of Misa’s SUV, A Swinger At Moodyji

Maner (Pataliputra), April 15: The heat is such, it is burning up the standing stalks of wheat. The air conditioning in Misa Bharti’s road-ragged SUV is turned to “high cold” but she’s sweating in the front seat. Cooling doesn’t work when the windows have to be kept rolled down; rolling them up doesn’t work when you’re trying to catch each extended hand, smile at each approaching face, wear each garland flung at you.

The campaign is lurching to a close in Pataliputra’s rural outback, there isn’t much more Misa can do on her final spin than sweat a little more in her seat, bat away a few more flies, swig a few more draughts of a home concoction.

“There isn’t even time to eat today,” Misa mutters to herself, “sab kuchh gaadi mein hi karna hoga… Everything will have to be done in the car.” She isn’t getting down, she tells her driver, as a cluster of supporters appears down the road. “Chalte rahiye… keep going.”

The driver turns to her and nods but tells her he doesn’t know where to go. “Someone said Punpun, someone said Maner, someone said Phulwari, the road forks ahead, so which way?” Misa doesn’t know either. “Chalte rahiye,” she says again. She sticks her head out of the window, cranes her neck into more garlands, grins widely and urges the driver on. Continue reading “In The Backseat Of Misa’s SUV, A Swinger At Moodyji”

2014, Patna, Telegraph Calcutta

A Sibling Swing At Succession: The Picture That Tells Many A Tale

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Patna: But for the man absent from the frame, this picture would have belonged strictly in family albums, not in newspaper pages. But for him, this would have been a very different picture, or, actually, a picture few would have bothered taking.

The people in it may have come across as far more meagre of circumstance, the backdrop would have been far humbler, if not lowly, a backdrop that belongs in a coarse daguerreotype. It would decidedly not have been this. These are the back lawns of 10 Deshratna Marg, among the grander ministerial acreages of West Patna. And this is the family of RJD chief, Laloo Yadav, the man not in the picture, the artist of this portrait, the sole master of this arrangement — the setting, the swing, the shade, the smiles, the language of bodies that belongs in a throne which hasn’t been available to adorn in a while. But for Laloo Yadav and his astonishing journey from buffalo-boy in the Gopalgunj boondocks to extended suzerainty over Bihar, none of this would exist.

That journey hit a trough when Lalu was cast out of power in 2005 and travelled further south when, in 2009, he did so poorly in the Lok Sabha that he lost his UPA cabinet perch in New Delhi. This coming election, Laloo believes, could be his hour of revival, an opportunity to sneak through the bitterly sundered alliance between the JDU and the BJP who collaborated to unseat him a decade ago. With Nitish and Narendra Modi at war, Laloo is waving an altered calculus whose arithmetic he boasts to dominate: “No stopping this time, look at the voteshares, simpul, simpul, faarmula is simpul, do the plus-minus. Kyon pade ho chakkar mein, koi nahin hai takkar mein… Don’t be at all confused, the competition is all defused.”

Even when desperately downbeat, Laloo was never one to give up his derring-do countenance; the newly divided field in Bihar has added a decibel to his daring. When Laloo cries out loud, he gathers crowds. The forecourt of 10 Deshratna Marg is humming with notes of new possibility. At the back of it, a rivalry has begun to eddy that Laloo often doesn’t want to countenance and wishes he could put down with the brandishing of a patriarchal baton.

You may not get to see a swing seat so voluptuous with political ambition. Look closely at the picture and you’ll find it already too crammed; Misa has wedged herself in, but only just. To her right is the older of her two brothers, Tej Pratap; to her left is her mother Rabri Devi and then, ensconsed in the far corner, her little brother Tejaswi. There’s one former Bihar chief minister here and, should you individually enquire, three aspiring ones, Misa, Tej Pratap, Tejaswi, in descending order of age, though not necessarily in quantum of appetite.

The irony that runs across this image and its characters is that the one man who brought them this far is and the only one who could promise to take them any further from here stands barred from contesting elections and, therefore, from public office. He is the man not in the picture, Laloo Yadav.

Laloo and Rabri Devi have nine children, seven daughters and two sons, of whom Misa is the eldest. Six of the daughters have been given away in marriage; among them Misa is the only one who refused to go away. She was able to persuade her IIM-trained husband, Sailesh, to come live in the Lalu household, instead. The youngest and yet unmarried daughter lives mostly at the family’s camp residence in Delhi and spends much of her time looking after the affairs of Misa’s two school-going daughters.

Misa’s determination to stay on has often been ascribed to her will to become anointed RJD heiress, a desire whetted no end when as a 20-something girl she saw her father pull her mother out of the kitchen and install her as chief minister of Bihar. Misa, far better educated — a trained doctor of medicine, in fact, and well spoken — quickly divined a future opportunity for herself. She might think of herself as best qualified to succeed her father. Among all the Laloo-Rabri children, Misa is the one who alone has a memory of their days of adversity and struggle ; she was 15 when her father became chief minister and the family stepped out of the low income housing they shared with cousins on the Patna Veterinary College campus, into I Aney Marg, the chief ministerial bungalow. Life would never be the same again.

Through her late teens and early adulthood, Misa apprenticed actively in the backroom machinations of power while the younger ones were at play. On occasion, following the fodder scam and Laloo’s removal from power, she would enact obdurate public defence of her parents and the party.

But she was soon to discover competitors at home: her two brothers Tej Pratap and Tejaswi. The apparent good cheer on the swing seat, mind you, is not faked or pretended for the camera. There exists among the siblings a fair bonhomie that comes from having lived out an open-house childhood around Laloo’s court. But there also exists, inevitably, politics between them; very often, sibling rivalry can turn adult and begin to imitate the machinations of a medieval court where succession is up for grabs.

Misa is the domineering one who Laloo often does not venture to counter, for love or for latent fear, or probably both. Tej Pratap is an oddball character and therefore more intractable. He turned a self-styled “Krishnavataar” a few years ago. He donned saffron robes and made it convenient for Laloo to keep at arm’s length — a godman, not a man of this world, easy to keep off politics.

But came a time a few years ago, when he waddled into the family theatre, probably nudged along by Misa who was looking for an ally to counter Tejaswi, who is said to have Laloo’s favour. Laloo tried keeping Tej Pratap distracted, awarding him an automobile dealership near Aurangabad that the son dutifully and charmingly christened with an amalgam of his parents first names: Lara Automobiles, he called it. But he soon lost interest, or was made to, delegated responsibilities and returned to 10 Deshratna Marg. The saffron robes of Tej Pratap are long gone, he has donned khadi, the signature fabric of political intent. He now prowls the 10 Deshratna yard with his own clutch of loyalists and has posted a huge vinyl emboss of his on a side wall. Each of the three has a coterie, each spies on the others activities, each schemes about behind Laloo while he attempts an uphill comeback.

The RJD boss still appears intent on Tejaswi, though. He eased him onto to the 2010 campaign stage and since then, a murmur has prevailed that he is the chosen one. Tejaswi spent a couple of IPL seasons warming the bench in the Delhi Daredevils dugout, then retired hurt to the political stage. He began to figure on RJD posters beside his parents, he was made to tail his father, sit on meetings, recruit a bunch of his own loyalists. He was also given access to Laloo’s room at the RJD headquarters, if only as a sign others were meant to heed.

All of which was quickly noticed; very soon counter manoeuvres began to ripple on the family table. Misa landed one afternoon at the RJD offices and ordered her father’s room opened when neither he nor Tejaswi was in town. She sat in her father’s chair and ordered people around for a bit, if only to underline succession wasn’t a sealed affair. Then she laid claim to her disqualified father’s Lok Sabha seat, and secured it. This, even at the cost of Lalu losing staunch loyalist Ram Kripal Yadav, now the BJP rival to Misa from Patliputra. The battle is now for her to win and prove herself worthy. Tej Pratap, court whisper will tell you, is her ally. Tejaswi, not yet the age he can contest, can afford a smile because he has time, and probably his father, on his side. Often, because they believe it to be a long-awaited season of favourable wind for the RJD, they all can. Like on the swing seat.

2014, Bihar, Reportage, Telegraph Calcutta

From Gujarat Into Bihar: After the Mahatma, Narendra Modi

Recently in Patna: Not since Indira Gandhi has any non-Bihari come to dominate the state’s political discourse as the BJP’s prime ministerial pick from the far end of the country, Gujarat’s Narendra Modi.

The central clue to Modi’s pre-eminence on the poll run is merely this: both Bihari protagonists, chief minister Nitish Kumar of the JDU, and predecessor Laloo Yadav of the RJD, have all but forsaken cognition of each other and narrowed focus on Modi as their chief adversary, the man to beat in this summer’s Lok Sabha election.

Nitish brought his protracted quarrel with Modi to a head last June, severing his 17-year tryst with the BJP even at the cost of losing majority on the assembly floor and losing out on the support of key upper caste sections. “Modi is a socially divisive and economically non-inclusive politician, a threat to pluralist India,” Nitish has repeatedly remonstrated in advocacy of his decision. More recently, as battle-lines sharpened and stakes rose, he has also been driven, in unlikely fashion, to pit himself in the race for prime ministership.

Laloo, on the other hand, has mocked Nitish’s “secular” avatar, emphasized his long conjugality with the BJP and foregrounded himself as the vanguard of the battle against Modi. “History will tell you, and the future will prove, the strength and force to fight communal and fascist forces like Modi resides in me, none else. I stopped (L.K.) Advani’s communal rath in Bihar, Nitish was the one who flagged it off again, tell me what credibility does he have?”

Continue reading “From Gujarat Into Bihar: After the Mahatma, Narendra Modi”

2005, Essay, Patna, Tehelka

Chronicle Of A Death Foretold

 

From the week that Nitish Kumar took over as NDA chief minister of Bihar in 2005 — and from far before Narendra Modi intervened — a piece on how long his unnatural alliance with the BJP could last

At the heart of the JD(U)-BJP alliance is a virulent anti-Lalooism. Now that their implacable foe has been quelled, will the combination crumble under the weight of its contradictions?

For a sense of where this massive mandate may have landed Nitish Kumar, perhaps this vignette from the recent past. Gandhi Maidan, Patna, staging post of many a momentous turn in our times — Indira Gandhi rallying opinion to wage the liberation of Bangladesh, the frail forefinger of Jayaprakash Narain risen to undo the Mighty Indira and her Emergency, an inspired Laloo Yadav sworn in to do what JP had left unachieved.

But this is Gandhi Maidan on November 16, the penultimate day of canvassing for the Bihar elections and the NDA’s final show of strength against the entrenched Laloo Yadav. A lesser battle, a lesser stage, a lesser audience. But in the immediate context, a moment momentous enough. These men had come storming Laloo’s castle several times in the past and each time they had been repulsed, one way or the other. This was a now-or-never moment.

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Star of the show, general of the battle: Nitish Kumar of the Janata Dal (United). On his flanks, his allies, leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Atal Behari Vajpayee, Lal Krishna Advani, Uma Bharti, Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj, Sushil Modi, Shahnawaz Hussain, Hukumdeo Narayan Yadav, Nand Kishore Yadav, Ravi Shankar Prasad, arm still in a sling from that gun assault. This was meant to be an NDA affair, a joint rally. Was there another leader from the JD(U) on stage? No. Did the stage sport JD(U) colours? No. There was the odd JD(U) flag held aloft in the audience but none courtesy the organisers.

Symbolic of what is to come? Or mere happenstance that the spearhead of the challenge — and now chief minister — found himself swamped by saffron at the peak of the campaign?

Nitish Kumar rode the show as unanimously agreed alternative to Rabri Devi, the BJP was upfront in stating that loud and clear. And now that the arithmetic of elections too has gone firmly in favour of Nitish, the BJP is in no position to dispute his skippership of the alliance even if it wanted to. The JD(U) has bagged nearly 90 seats, the BJP 55. So, for the record, everything is straight.

Continue reading “Chronicle Of A Death Foretold”