Nitish severed ties with NDA to save his secular image, JD(U) from ruin
One thing about Nitish Kumar’s decision to walk out of the alliance with the BJP you can say was that it was not sudden. It was an eruption of an alienation long building up.
It started with the return to power of Narendra Modi in May 2019. Unlike the BJP of Modi 1.0, which was respectful and accommodative to him—at times even overruling the state leaders—the BJP of Modi 2.0 was high-and-mighty and overbearing. Nitish got the first taste of its new attitude in the allocation of berths to his party, the Janata Dal (United), in the Modi 2.0 cabinet.
The BJP had 17 MPs from the state. The Modi-Shah duo decided to take five of them into the cabinet. The JD(U) had 16 MPs from the state. Nitish demanded a ‘proportional representation,’ asking them to give four berths, if not five, to his party. But they were not willing to give him more than two. He found it personally embarrassing as the leader of the party, for what would his MPs and the voters who had elected them think? What would his whole party think? That Nitish Kumar had no power to get equal representation in the cabinet?
Party insiders say Nitish Kumar could have settled for three berths—two cabinet ministers and one minister of state—but the duo stuck to two. Finally, for the sake of maintaining the alliance, Nitish agreed for two berths. Amit Shah called him to Delhi to finalize the two berths. But when he met Shah, he told him he would give him only one berth. Shah remained unmoved by Nitish’s argument for more.
Nitish left Shah’s house, telling him he would decide whether to take the single berth after consultations with his senior party colleagues. It was Nitish’s way of saying no to Shah’s offer, which after some hours he finally did. He attended the swearing in of the Modi cabinet. Later he told the media, “The JD(U) has decided not to join the Union cabinet.”
The BJP made no efforts to placate him. There were rumours about the JD(U) pulling out of the alliance even then. “All is well,” both sides said, but the feeling in Nitish’s mind that the BJP of Modi 2.0 would not care much for his sentiments only grew with a series of subsequent developments.
‘Tactical alliance’ dented Nitish’s secular image
Nitish had always maintained that his alliance with the BJP was not an “ideological alliance” but a “tactical alliance.” He had been able to keep up his secular image by virtue of his uncompromising stance on the RSS-BJP dream projects such as the abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir and the uniform civil code. He did not even allow them to whip up any campaigns on ‘love jihad’, ‘illegal immigrants and’ ‘religious conversions’ in the state.
But that was in Modi 1.0. Modi 2.0 was different. It was overweening, ambitious and audacious. It revoked Article 370, introduced a law banning triple talaq, passed an anti-Muslim amendment to the Citizens Act, decided to make a National Register of Citizens (NRC) to weed out illegal immigrants and a model uniform civil code for Uttarakhand.
Nitish’s position on all these issues did not matter to the BJP leadership. Considering it tactically unwise to break the alliance on those issues, he let the laws on Article 370, triple talaq and CAA be passed with only a token protest from the JD(U). But his feeling, according to party insiders, only grew stronger that it would be difficult for him to continue in alliance with the BJP without the total annihilation of his secular political image and total loss of public respect.
He tried to bolster his image by announcing he would not allow a NRC in Bihar. He got the Assembly to pass a resolution against it. He even rejected Modi 2.0’s National Population Register (NPR) project which asked for every person’s date of birth and dates and places of birth of their parents. He shot down other RSS-BJP ideas such as a population control law and prohibition on azan, mosque prayer calls through loudspeakers, and on hijab in schools.
But all these measures did not help him fully reclaim his secular image. Because nationally and in the state the BJP became more and more strident, vociferous and blatant. Festivals like Ramnavami became a parade in streets of naked swords and ‘Wake up, Hindus’ slogans. There were demands for a ‘Yogi model of governance’ in Bihar.
Saving JD(U) from BJP’s shadow
Apart from the ruin of his secular image beyond recovery, Nitish also faced a threat of ruin of his party if he remained in alliance with the BJP. Because the BJP was relentlessly working to bring itself to a position when it could get a majority on its own to form the government. It had given five cabinet berths to its MPs from the state and only one to the JD(U) MPs in order to build its ‘bigger-than-JD(U)’ image in the eyes of the people of Bihar.
It had used Chirag Paswan to set up candidates especially against JD(U) candidates in the Assembly elections in 2020. Paswan’s single-point agenda in the elections was to defeat JD(U) and make Nitish Kumar lose the chief minister’s chair.
According to JD(U) insiders, in recent months the BJP was trying to use Nitish’s former confidante RCP Singh, who was the Minister of Steel in the Modi cabinet until recently, to split the party by drawing some MLAs to his side.
Thus, Nitish broke out of the alliance with the BJP for two reasons: one, to save his secular image; two, to save his party.
(The writer is an independent journalist and the author of ‘Nitish Kumar and the Rise of Bihar’ and ‘The Battle for Bihar’)
(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Federal)