The newly constituted national executive under new BJP president Nitin Gadkari met during the weekend in Patna to work out a plan to attack the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government at the Centre.
But the meet ended up exposing the contradictions within the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), of which the BJP is the largest constituent.
How? The party’s biggest crowd-puller, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, projected himself in a manner that led to Bihar CM Nitish Kumar going ballistic against the former in particular and the BJP in general.
And, far from shoring up the BJP and the NDA, these ads have sparked off speculation of Kumar doing a Naveen Patnaik on the saffron party. The Orissa chief minister had dumped the BJP and quit the NDA just before the 2009 elections and returned to power with a thumping majority.
Kumar took umbrage at full page ads — released by Modi’s “admirers” and, in one case, by the Gujarat government — that highlighted
Modi's “achievements” and Gujarat’s aid to Bihar during the Kosi floods of 2008, insidiously pointing at Bihar’s need for help. “Bihar itna kamzor nahin hai, wo apne boote par sab karne ko saksham hain (Bihar is not that weak, it can manage on its own),” said Kumar.
Subliminally, he was appealing to Bihari "pride" to counter Modi.
Also, the ad showing Kumar and Modi holding hands as an expression of solidarity upset the Bihar CM, who threatened legal action against the sponsor of the ad because it (the ad) did not have his approval.
But his anger was really political.
The Muslim vote is important to Kumar in the year of the Bihar election. The Gujarat riots of 2002, when Modi was at the helm, are still believed to be deeply etched in the psyche of Indian Muslims, who regard him as being inimical to their interests.
So, it was little wonder that an ad that purported to show Modi as Kumar's benefactor and friend did not go down well with the latter.
Out of sheer indignation, Kumar cancelled a dinner he was scheduled to host for the BJP brass.
Subsequently, it was BJP leader and former Union minister Shahnawaz Hussain’s patient press conference that helped the party tide over a barrage of difficult questions.
Initially, top BJP leaders are believed to have thought of meeting Kumar over the matter, but a widespread feeling of hurt within the party over the dinner cancellation made them decide against it.
“Kumar has turned too arrogant,” a senior BJP leader told HT. “He should not forget that Bihar is not Naveen Patnaik’s Orissa, where we had little hold. Here, we have many seats, leaders, and steady support, particularly among the upper castes.”
“Maybe the advertisement controversy was unnecessary, but it served as an occasion to reinforce the self-respect of the cadre,” said BJP chief spokesperson Ravi Shankar Prasad.
However, many leaders are believed to be unhappy about Modi for creating an unnecessary crisis.
In the rally on Sunday, Modi answered Kumar’s put-down with a passionate speech at Gandhi Maidan, where he overshadowed every other BJP leader.
He also snatched the anti-UPA theme of the meet away from the BJP national leadership and sought to turn the tables on Congress President Sonia Gandhi by asking who was “maut ka saudagar” (merchant of deaths) during the Bhopal gas disaster of 1984, when 15,000 people died.
While Modi dangled his government’s “performance” to transcend regional politics, the political fracas also highlighted his lack of acceptability among BJP’s moderate allies.
The truth is that the BJP’s biggest crowd-puller today is unacceptable to some of its crucial allies, a marked departure from the Vajpayee days.
“We have decided to refrain from washing the dirty linen — meaning, introspecting on the internal health of the party — in public so as to send across the message of a strong opposition force ready to take on the government,” a senior leader had said just before the meet, requesting anonymity.
While some feel the advertisements were Modi’s way of getting even with Kumar because the latter had asked the BJP to keep the former off the Bihar poll campaigns in 2005, others perceive these as the beginning of the Gujarat CM attempting to build a national image by advertising his Gujarat performance.
It was left to party veteran L.K. Advani to reach out to Kumar during his speech, even if with the gentle suggestion that he too owed his position to the NDA and had over-reacted to the Modi advertisements. He soothed nerves by saying that he hoped the NDA would make the 21st century India’s century.
The damage, however, may have been done.