Nitish Kumar, Bihar Chief Minister, was the undisputed star of the opposition alliance, talked of as a possible Prime Ministerial candidate to take on the unstoppable Modi juggernaut. Post defection to the NDA, he’s suffered an epic down-sizing in stature, along with a taste of how the new BJP with Amit Shah as President treats its allies.
This has two important implications: that the BJP will not cede an inch of political space even to allies and now plans to concede only some measly seats in Bihar, for the state and general elections, to the Nitish-led Janata Dal United (JDU); the wider implication is that Shah and Modi understand that the BJP has hit peak saturation in strongholds like Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Rajasthan and is likely to see diminishing electoral returns. The last time around, the BJP got 73 of the 80 Lok Sabha seats from UP. Shah realizes that this time around, it may not be such a cake walk.
That’s the reason why the BJP is trying all possible ways to grow its political space and base in hitherto unexplored territory such as West Bengal and Kerala. Witness the joint ongoing push in Kerala jointly by Shah and Yogi Adityanath.
Nitish is reportedly extremely upset at the uncertainty over the nearly $3 billion General Electric (GE) locomotive project which had the US firm committed to building 1,000 engines at a Bihar factory. New Railways Minister Piyush Goyal has suggested India would prefer electric locomotives; an upset GE has pointed out it doesn’t make those. With signs of the deal fraying, sources say Nitish reached out to Shah for a clarification and that Goyal’s statement which followed, stating the project is not in jeopardy, was part of a carefully-calibrated strategy to ensure that the centre gets due credit in Bihar for coming to the rescue of the state.
“He was the dulha (bridegroom) of the UPA and a Bihari dulha at that – pampered and spoilt, with every whim catered to,” said a JDU leader perceived to be close to Nitish. “Sonia Gandhi would personally reach out and persuade Lalu Prasad Yadav if Nitish was upset. Now it is different. Nitish is treated as a step-child by Shah.”
Even in the case of the recent cabinet reshuffle, Nitish expected two berths and a call from Modi. Nothing. To save face, a story was put out that a later reshuffle would be held to accommodate allies. BJP sources rule that out in the 18 remaining months of the Modi government’s tenure. They say that neither Modi nor Shah have forgiven or forgotten their long, bitter history with Nitish, who ditched his alliance with the BJP ahead of the last general election, declaring Modi unacceptable as the prime ministerial candidate. Sources say it was a strategic decision to get Nitish to return to partnering with the BJP because it sawed off opposition unity and it’s now similarly a political decision to cut him to size to ensure that the BJP emerges as big brother in Bihar.
The clearest warning signal of the BJP’s intent is the setting up of Mandal 2.0 to redistribute the benefits of OBC quotas. The commission, under retired Delhi High Court Chief Justice G Rohini, has been tasked to identify sub-categories of OBCs on a scientific basis and submit its findings in 12 weeks. The point is to ensure that within castes that have benefitted from reservation, differences are evened out. This will ensure electoral advantage to the BJP because it will take away from the dominant OBCs like the Yadavs – who back leaders like Mulayam Singh – and redistribute benefits to the less dominant OBCs, who the BJP has been appealing to.
This is all part of a huge Shah and Modi project to recast the BJP as an all-inclusive party rather than the hitherto party of the upper castes.
Nitish is now braced for the BJP’s onslaught and is quietly trying to break the Congress unit in Bihar, using Ashok Choudhary who has just been sacked as the Bihar Congress chief and can bring about 20 MLAs with him. However, this survival strategy for Nitish has not been kindly looked upon by the BJP, which says there’s no room in the Nitish-BJP alliance to accommodate the Congressmen who are usually upper caste and represent urban areas – the same demographic as the BJP’s candidates. Nitish is also in touch with disgruntled BJP leaders Shatrughan Sinha and Yashwant Sinha. However, how the thoroughly sidelined leaders can aid Nitish is questionable.
Nitish is only facing what other BJP allies have regularly been subjected to. Take the case of the fractious and tempestuous BJP-Shiv Sena relationship. Regular attacks and jibes are common, yet they have stopped just short of parting. Even Congress defector Narayan Rane got a taste of the Shah treatment. Rane met Shah via an emissary thinking he would be welcomed in the BJP with open arms. Shah, it is learnt, gave him ten minutes and told him to keep in touch. Rane had to finally form his own party and forlornly state that he would consider joining the NDA. This is precisely what Shah wanted: a bulwark against the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra which would cut in to the Sena votes. It’s similar to the “understanding” he has with NCP chief Sharad Pawar.
The message to all allies, formal and informal, is clear: Shah will not allow them to grow at the expense of the BJP. They will be used like Shankersinh Vaghela in Gujarat – to cut in to Congress votes and act as a spoiler. Why would they agree to this? Because they want a piece of power and a seat at the table.
This is the message Shah is delivering to Nitish – and he has no qualms about the discomfiture it is causing.