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.

Continue reading “The Brothers Bihari: The great hand-grab and a dinner not served”
2015, Bihar 2020, Journalism, Patna, Telegraph Calcutta

Bihar2020 from Bihar2015: The Artful Dodger called Mukesh Sahni

When I first met him, this young man had merely dipped a toe into electoral waters. It appears he liked what he sensed and had the resources to indulge his fancies. Here’s Sahni, “Son of Mallah”, who now heads Bihar’s VIP, and has extracted 11 assembly seats from the BJP. A throwback piece from the 2015 campaign.

This is the story of the negotiator of this election. He belongs to no political party, has zero political lineage and next to no grooming in rough and tumble. But he has bargained artfully with Bihar’s big adversaries – the NDA and the Mahagathbandhan – switched loyalties with aplomb and extracted more purchase and notice than might be expected of a 34-year-old Bollywood set decorator.

Mukesh Sahni, “Son of Mallah”

Meet Mukesh Sahni, also known as “Son of Mallah”, consummate “apolitical” politicker, a man pursued alike by Nitish Kumar and Amit Shah, a man who shuttled tantalisingly between both before agreeing to be seduced by the latter. “I am no politician,” he says, “All I had were votes, I went for the one who gave me and my community the better deal. Did I do any wrong?” Money? And how much? “None,” he counters, “Not a pie, I am not for sale, I am here to secure the best for my Mallah (boatmen) brothers. I have made money, and I am aware what happens once you’ve sold yourself.”

Continue reading “Bihar2020 from Bihar2015: The Artful Dodger called Mukesh Sahni”
Bihar 2020, News, Telegraph Calcutta

Polls2020: The Method in Bihar’s Madness

Or, why the state’s election battlefield makes you wonder who’s fighting who

Those familiar with the serial adventures of Asterix of Gaul would perhaps best be able to visualise the emerging contours of battleground Bihar. Multiple armies converging upon each other in raucous streams with no cognition of ally and adversary, heft or hollowness, as if animated solely by the prospect of an anarchic enactment.

What looked like a humdrum contest between two alliances until last week has overnight been transformed into a shambolic melee that has so blurred the battle-lines that it is tough to tell who’s fighting who. Bihar is headed towards an onomatopoeic crescendo ringing with comic-grade sonics — Piff! Paff! Bong! Aaaargh!!

Raring mid-battlestrip is the exaggeration called Chirag Paswan, a political rookie handed reins of the LJP by his ailing father, the veteran Ram Vilas Paswan, who passed away in a Delhi hospital on Thursday evening. 

The young Paswan is clearly punching impossibly above his weight or his party’s. The LJP’s Assembly numbers have been steadily tumbling; from an all-time high of 29, they plummeted to two in the 243-member house in 2015. On such a match-box presence, Chirag has unveiled ambitions of erecting a mansion — the LJP will contest 143 seats, in abject violation of reason and of accepted coalition norms.

But to focus on Chirag’s implausible leap of political pretence — probably buoyed in some measure now by sympathy sentiment — is to lose sight of the launch pad that has shot him towards distances way beyond his horsepower. Chirag’s sudden voracity of appetite and his violations of NDA entente are a thing of the BJP’s encouragement.

Continue reading “Polls2020: The Method in Bihar’s Madness”
2017, Essay, Telegraph Calcutta

I, PROMISCUOUS Power and the Improbable Amorality of Nitish Kumar

My take on Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s turncoat vault back into the lap of the BJP

Nitish Kumar on top of the Taxila ruins in Pakistan in 2012. Photo by Sankarshan Thakur.

His first chosen partner was, believe you me, the CPI(ML). His current chosen partner is a BJP as approximate to the RSS as it can get. Between them, Nitish Kumar has run the entire political spectrum, picking this one, ditching that one, in the pursuit and possession of power – from the provincial rogue called the Bihar People’s Party to national players like the Congress and the Left, each seduced at one time or another to afford him his embrace of the chair.

Nitish’s record of serial dalliance and ditchery springs from good reason, though. For, if power has been the central theme of Nitish’s career, the inability to secure it on his own is its central truth. Astounding as it may sound, the man who is in his third successive term as chief minister and who for a good while fancied himself as prime minister in waiting, has never won his home state singly. At his best he never had enough to propel him anywhere close to office; 17 per cent, never more. He needed booster feeds, he always needed an ally. Not a fanciful token as the CPI(ML) in 1995 – that effort fetched him the princely Assembly tally of seven of 324 seats in pre-Jharkhand Bihar – but a significant, bankable one.

He found not one but two.

Both would be handed good reason, at different junctures, to believe our chosen headline sits aptly on the man. For he has, at different junctures, found reason to kiss, then kick both.

It’s fair to reckon he’s not done with them yet; nor they with him. The guillotine-drop on Lalu Prasad mid-week and the immediate garlanding of Narendra Modi is by no means the last that’s been heard of Nitish Kumar in their annals. Not too far ago in the past, it was Modi under Nitish’s guillotine-drop, and Lalu the one getting the garland. There are scores here that await settlement.

Continue reading “I, PROMISCUOUS Power and the Improbable Amorality of Nitish Kumar”

2013, Patna, Reportage, Telegraph Calcutta

On the Eve of Split, A Few Telltale Signs in Patna

Why it was clear it was over days before Nitish formally broke from the BJP over Narendra Modi

Patna, June 14: Either the wind did it or some vandal. But intentional or unintended, man’s mischief or nature’s collateral, it’s a sight whose symbolism would grab even the blind.

The first big Narendra Modi hoarding to be emblazoned at the BJP headquarters in Patna in the Nitish Kumar years stands ripped down the middle.

The face that has brought a 17-year-old alliance to the eve of bitter rupture occupies a beatific space on the half that remains intact: Modi’s. As if it couldn’t care the other half was gone, torn and sundered.

images

Tomorrow’s another day in politics but on today’s evidence, the JD(U)-BJP coalition looks every bit the image of that hoarding — split down the middle under the looming gaze of Modi.

Just when and how the last rites will be consummated are probably only a matter of logistics and form. Tomorrow? The day after? In a week? Patna is a thick swirl of speculation, but the inevitability of the break is increasingly not part of any uncertainty.

Toot chuka,” a close aide of chief minister Nitish Kumar told The Telegraph this evening, referring to the alliance. “Kaise, kab yehi tay karna baaki hai (It’s gone. All that is left is deciding when and how).”

Nitish himself was not flinching from acknowledgement of an endgame. Returning from wrapping up the last leg of his protracted Sewa Yatra outings this afternoon, he called the situation “grim” and requiring of deliberation.

Only a fortnight back, in the aftermath of his Maharajgunj defeat, he had brushed off suggestions of trouble in the alliance and labelled it strong.

Today, he was prepared to turn sardonic on appeals from BJP leaders to keep the alliance alive in the name of respecting the mandate given to it. “Dua karte hain jaan ki, Dawa jaan lene ki dete hain (they pray for my life, they offer me the potion of death),” he quipped acidly before departing the Patna airport for home.

Nitish has been feverishly lobbied by the BJP top brass to hold his horses on the Modi issue, even been told privately that there is no certainty the Gujarat chief minister will become the party’s prime ministerial nominee. But he is unwilling any more to be cajoled or convinced.

He is believed to have described some of those offering private assurances on behalf of the BJP as “khaali kartoos (spent cartridges)”.

To him, the penny-drop moment was not so much Modi’s naming as campaign committee boss; it was BJP president Rajnath Singh announcing in Goa that the party wanted to see Modi as the “bhaavi neta (future leader)” of the country.

“He has seen the writing on the wall, there will be no compromise on this,” a cabinet minister in Nitish’s inner circle said. He mentioned, rather pointedly, that neither Modi nor anybody close to him had made even the “slightest effort” to appeal to the Bihar chief minister, much less allay his apprehensions.

“The Modi camp is unbothered about the survival of this alliance,” he said, “and those in the BJP that are making worried noises are either doing it for form or they do not matter at all.”

That is a sense echoed by sections of the BJP that want the alliance to somehow survive but have lost hope. “We cannot wish Modi away any longer and Nitish will not tolerate the mention of him,” a BJP leader said this evening, almost wistful of tone. “We have no common ground left, it has all been claimed by Narendra Modi.”

What’s left, though, is for Nitish to make good his own high and unequivocally stated claim: that he will not countenance an arrangement by a man he deems communal and, therefore, unacceptable. Nitish has never publicly named Modi as fitting that description but that is political nicety whose veil has now worn thin.

Nitish’s zero-tolerance protocol on Modi is well catalogued. He has refused to let the Gujarat chief minister campaign in Bihar. He has shied away from sharing public space with him. In private conversations with BJP interlocutors here and in Delhi, he has never minced his words he will have nothing to do with Modi.

It will probably goad him to take his promised plunge.

For all its fervent entreaties in the name of the alliance — leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha Sushma Swaraj became the latest to make a save-our-soul and alliance appeal to Nitish today — the BJP has offered him no credible assurance that Modi will not eventually be named candidate for Prime Minister. Their drift has been quite the opposite: on Modi, there can’t be any compromise.

It will probably also goad him that pro-Modi sections in the Bihar BJP and his own cabinet have taken their gloves off and turned belligerent. Almost as if to taunt Nitish, his animal husbandry minister and Modi acolyte, Giriraj Singh, has decided to embark on an official trip to Gujarat, even though BJP ministers are currently on an undeclared pen-down.

State BJP chief Mangal Pandey has begun to accuse the JD(U) of trying to poach BJP MLAs, likening the Bihar allies to predator and prey. “Several of our legislators have been approached with inducements by JD(U) ministers,” Pandey ranted after a meeting of BJP leaders at the residence of deputy chief minister Sushil Modi, “This is no way for an ally to behave, in fact we have been meeting only to keep our flock together, it is becoming a desperate situation.”

Nitish’s cry is not unlike: what the BJP has done by foregrounding Narendra Modi is no way for an ally to behave. Not after they knew his mind, not if they wished to keep this alliance alive. Perhaps he has come to a pass where he doesn’t care either how closely his rocked ship resembles that tattered hoarding with Modi looming down.