What does one make of Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar’s sudden escalation of tensions with the BJP? He has been with the NDA for years and runs a fairly successful coalition with the BJP and yet, of late, he has been making pointed digs at his partner.
Sunday’s missile fired at the BJP, declaring that only a ‘unifying’ force like Atal Bihari Vajpayee was acceptable as the NDA’s leader is the latest in a line of provocations that has got the BJP all hot and bothered.
In May, Kumar held an Adhikar rally in Delhi immediately after Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi had come to the Capital to speak. The ostensible thrust of that meeting was to ask for special rights for Bihar but Kumar also used his Delhi trip to snatch some photo-ops with the prime minister and the finance minister, which could not but send out political signals.
Since then, he has not spared any opportunity to make it clear he and his party will back only a leader with “impeccable secular credentials”, which is code for ‘Modi is not acceptable to us’.
This is a red rag to the BJP, which feels it is needless interference in its internal matters but also touches a raw nerve in the saffron camp. They can accept it when the Congress, the BSP, the SP and the Left use the ‘BJP is communal’ line — those are rival parties. But should friends behave in this fashion?
In the run up to the elections, Kumar is doing what all other regional parties will soon do: he is jockeying for a position which is most dear to him. Kumar is letting everyone — the Congress, the BJP and also his peers — know that he is open for business.
When the time to form the next government comes, he would not mind continuing with the NDA, providing it projects a more acceptable face, but equally, he is prepared to flirt with the Congress if it can get sufficient seats to form UPA 3. Most of all, Kumar would like to be part of and maybe even lead the third front.
The third front is one of those perennial fantasies of the anti-Congress, anti-BJP outfits that come to life every five years or so in the months before a general election. It is based on the calculation that neither of the two major national parties will get enough seats to form the government on their own or even come up with sufficient numbers to form the core of a credible coalition.
Inevitably, therefore, other smaller groups will get together and choose (amiably) a leader from among themselves. This will also require the support of a friendly national party that wants to keep the other one out.
Every few years such an arrangement does come to life but there has been no third front government for 15 years and the regional outfits, led by ambitious local leaders, are getting restless. Now, as both national parties flounder, they see an opportunity.
The first such government was formed in 1989, when VP Singh, freshly out of the Congress and wearing his martyr’s halo formed the Jan Morcha and then the Janata Dal. The Dal won 142 seats in the Lok Sabha elections, less than the Congress. Rajiv Gandhi turned down the chance to form the government and with the help of the BJP and the Left acting as crutches on either side, Singh became the prime minister.
Anti-Congressism was the driving force of that combination and it did not prove glue enough to hold it together — after Singh’s government fell, Chandra Shekhar, with a lesser number of MPs, became the prime minister, with the Congress backing him.
A similar pattern was repeated in 1996 when HD Deve Gowda was selected as the PM by the third front members only to be replaced by IK Gujral, whose government fell in 1998. Both Gowda and Gujral were non-entities at the national level and were compromise candidates because the others claimants could not agree on any other name.
Since then, either the BJP-led NDA or the UPA with the Congress as the dominant party has formed the governments. But that has not stopped many regional chieftains from chasing the chimera of the third front and modestly letting it be known that they are willing to be considered as future PMs.
Five years ago names such as Ram Vilas Paswan were doing the rounds as potential PMs. Just last year Mamata Banerjee and Naveen Patnaik were spoken of as potential prime ministers of a possible fourth front. Others like J Jayalalithaa would not mind throwing her hat in the ring while the perpetual hoper, Sharad Pawar is always standing to attention on the sidelines.
The reality is a bit more sobering. The four leaders named above barely have 70 MPs to their party’s name. Even if sworn enemies, the BSP and the SP, join this motley crew and the Left jumps in, the number goes up by another 60-odd.
Clearly, whichever way the numbers are sliced and diced, they don’t amount to much, certainly not in a way that can support the grandiose ambitions of the leaders. It is a clear case of too many chiefs, not enough Indians. Besides, if at all the third front gets a significant number of seats collectively, these leaders will cancel each other out, since none would support the other.
The BJP is hamstrung because it wants to promote Modi but cannot openly do so, while the Congress so far does not look like a winning opposition. The situation therefore is very fluid, allowing for every kind of permutation and combination.
The ideal outcome, from the regional leader’s point of view would be for a national party winning good but not sufficient numbers which would leave it no choice but to accept a regional satrap, with around 25 MPs, to become the PM. Nitish Kumar would be hopeful of that. Hence his aggressive posture with the BJP.
At the same time, he does not want to be left high and dry. Lalu Prasad’s party, which got a creditable 19% of the vote last time, is showing signs of revival. A worst case scenario for Kumar would be a falling out with the BJP with no place to go. He has thus given the BJP ‘till the end of the year’ to come up with another name.
Kumar is ambitious but he is also a realist. The next few months are going to be about alliances and more such balancing acts by other regional parties will be seen in the political arena.
Sidharth Bhatia is a journalist and the author of Cinema Modern: The Navketan Story. The views expressed by the author are personal.