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With friends like these

india Updated: Jun 22, 2013 12:01 IST
Highlight Story

The ascendancy of Narendra Modi may have scripted the inevitability of Nitish Kumar’s exit from a 17-year-old alliance but it still doesn’t explain everything about the precise point of rupture.

For several years now, the Bihar chief minister’s antipathy for the rising star of the BJP has been well chronicled.

He kept his Gujarat counterpart far away from the state’s election rallies; unceremoniously scrapped a dinner for senior BJP leaders in protest against posters that jointly featured him and the Gujarat CM and virtually dared the BJP to end the relationship by insisting that a prime ministerial candidate be named well before the 2014 elections, adding the simultaneous condition that the contender could not be Modi.

Despite some equally well-documented contradictions (thanking the PM for calling him secular in 2013; telling him scornfully to not act like the “vice-chancellor of the university of secularism” in 2009) the not-if-but-when question had already sealed the fate of this long-lasting, but cantankerous relationship.

Logically then, the bolt from the NDA should have come right after the first-among-equals anointment of Modi in Goa. But interestingly, on that fateful weekend party representatives of the JD(U) were much more circumspect.

While they stuck to their stand on opposing a larger national role for Modi, they argued that his elevation as poll panel chief was an internal party matter. After all, said one spokesman after another, it was not as if he had been declared chairman of the NDA or prime ministerial candidate.

In that case, what changed all of a sudden?

Of course you could argue that the party was hedging its bets and buying time as it evolved a more cogent strategy. Or you could argue that what changed was not within Nitish Kumar’s party but within the BJP.

It was only when the BJP patriarch LK Advani suddenly quit from all party posts that the strongest articulation of an immediate exit came from the JD(U).

Notwithstanding the historical ironies — remember it was Advani whose intervention prevailed over Vajpayee’s counsel in Goa, 2002, preventing Modi from being removed as CM — the sharp response of the Bihar ally to the treatment of the party veteran brought into focus the real faultlines of the Sangh Parivar.

The headlines may have been constructed to convey a clash of two CMs. But the conflagration isn’t so much Nitish vs Modi (that’s already done and over with) as much as it is Modi vs his own party, or at the very least a section of it.

Who the BJP cadres would choose is a no-brainer; they are impatient with the coyness the party leadership has shown in officially naming Modi their man for 2014. But before the Gujarat CM can be the general who leads his troops into electoral battle, he must fight a million mutinies in his own backyard.

Advani may have been persuaded to withdraw his resignations — significantly the only post he did not resign from was that of the chairman of the NDA — but an elaborate camp warfare is underway within the BJP.

Everyday a smattering of small-arms fire can be heard across the line of control that separates the pro-Modi factions from those opposed to him.

Traditional equations have been turned upside down. Former party president, Nitin Gadkari, ousted by a shrewd Advani plan to pitch Yashwant Sinha against him is now back on the side of his recent nemesis.

Gadkari had his own run-ins with the Gujarat CM before a tenuous patch-up. His patronage of Modi’s bête noire Sanjay Joshi created a war of nerves between the two politicians.

At the worst point in their relationship, he and Modi did not even communicate directly. Even as party president, he once told me that he would talk to Modi through the mediatory efforts of another BJP leader, Balbir Punj.

Now Gadkari has been using his proximity to the RSS to open a line of communication between Nagpur and Advani, seemingly forgiving of the palace coup that toppled him.

Other Advani protégés are lying low and being politically correct for the media. But privately, several of them are candid about their fears.

The cult of personality, they say — from the Modi masks at election rallies to the photographs on children’s school bags — will devour the space for any other individual ambitions.

Under-confident about their own ability to take on a man whose support is clearly derived from the party base, they are quite happy to shoot from Advani’s shoulder, and duck quickly from the counter-shelling.

As Advani insists on a “collective leadership” to steer the BJP into the warzone of electoral conflict, the fight is being positioned as an ideological one. But it really is an intensely political one — a story of competing ambitions whose script is being written by the intensely complicated logic of my enemy’s enemy is my friend.

It’s no coincidence that Advani’s long-time aide Sudheendra Kulkarni has gone public with his description of Modi as an “autocrat” and the party president as “foxy.”

It’s clear that there are those in the BJP who think the Gujarat CM will shore up the numbers only to be rejected by prospective allies. So they are backing him for now in the hope that this will bring them back into the game at a later stage.

Contrary to what his social media evangelists like to propagate, Narendra Modi’s biggest opposition is not from the liberal (or as they like to say ‘sickular’) media or even from the Congress. Before he jumps those hurdles, he has to fight friendly fire. His real battle is at home.

Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, NDTV
The views expressed by the author are personal