School bus seating arrangements sometimes teach you more about politics than an army of political pundits.
Once upon a time when I was hoping to expand my constituency from a loyal but limited group of male friends to a new demographic grouping — girls — I started to sit on strategically located seats inside the school bus.
The bus would pick us up from our boys’ school and then proceed to pick up students from a nearby girls’ school.
One would assume that the easiest way for me to try and become friendly with any girl would be by changing my seat once the girls got on board and sitting next to one.
Or by reserving the seat next to mine and then making polite overtures to a girl to have her sit next to me. You would assume that this was a perfectly logical and decent way to go about things. But you would be wrong.
What you need to factor in is the vicious retribution that can follow when a boy in his early teens is seen by other boys of showing any interest beyond derision towards girls.
By making any move to befriend a girl, I would have jeopardised my friendship with other boys in the bus.
So there was only one method at my disposal: praying to the deity of all non-co-ed school-going boys that a girl would end up sitting next to me.
When this did occasionally happen, I had to feign disinterest. If the same girl ended up sitting too frequently next to me, I was required to make disparaging comments about her later on to my friends.
By engaging in such an arrangement, I retained my friendship with the boys even as I quietly built bridges with a few girls.
While everyone now is adding their gloss to Nitish Kumar’s open rejection of Narendra Modi as the NDA’s prime ministerial candidate, I can’t help but see in the Janata Dal (United)’s decision to pull out of the NDA a clever ‘school bus seat’ move.
This will be the second Lok Sabha elections since Kumar became chief minister in 2005. Riding on the wave of four years of good governance, damage control and not-being-a-Lalu-government, the NDA won 32 of the 40 seats in Bihar in 2009, the JD(U) bagging 20 seats on its own with the BJP, notching up 12 riding on the JD(U)’s coat tails.
Despite the great showing, vote shares pointed to a closer battle. The JD(U) had garnered 24% of the votes, with 19% going not to the BJP (14%) but to Lalu Yadav’s RJD. Lalu, with the RJD reduced to four seats, would go on to acknowledge that he had made a mistake by leaving the UPA after disagreements with the Congress over seat-sharing, and proceeded to provide unconditional support to the UPA 2.
Three days after the last phase of the Lok Sabha elections in Bihar, on Sunday, May 10, 2009, Nitish shared the stage with Modi at an NDA rally in Ludhiana.
The now-famous image of the beaming Kumar and Modi clasping their hands in the air as a Dharam-Veer jodi became the picture for the RJD to try and expose the truth about ‘secular’ Nitish.
It also became the NDA’s proof that Nitish and Naren were, despite all the rumours, in love. But even after a romping victory, Nitish was furious about the photo becoming NDA poster material.
Lalu’s tirades against Nitish’s ‘diabolical double-standards’ had not cut much ice after Nitish’s first term as CM. The thumping victory at the 2010 assembly elections had the NDA winning 206 of the 243 total seats with the JD(U) and BJP getting 115 and 91 seats respectively.
Some three years later, with anti-incumbency a possibility and Lalu a far more potent challenger, Kumar had little option but to prove to his sizeable Muslim constituency that he wasn’t running with the hare and hunting with the hounds.
Which is exactly what he has been doing with aplomb all this while. Being part of the UPA for any non-Congress party can be donning the role of a vassal.
With the NDA a better joint venture partner, Nitish started slamming two pedals simultaneously: the good governance-clean administration pedal to remind voters of the difference between Lalu and himself; and the anti-communal pedal to remind voters of the similarity between Lalu and himself.
A Modi not to be touched with a bargepole was honed for public consumption in Bihar — after, I presume, Nitish worked out an arrangement with the polarising bear from Gujarat.
This arrangement got balled up by Modi’s elevation as de facto BJP prime ministerial candidate. It’s one thing for many JD(U) voters to have a BJP government in Delhi.
It’s quite another to have a Narendra Modi one. For Kumar, not to have been seen recoiling would have been spooning the ball to Lalu, who has woken up in first slip since the massive RJD victory in the Maharajganj by-election, a seat held by the JD(U) in the 2009 polls.
But if school bus seatings point to anything, I won’t be surprised if Nitish does end up being the NDA prime minister if Modi fails to carry the BJP to the end of the rainbow.
In a post-poll scenario, with a chance of the Modi-as-PM gamble fizzling out, Nitish would be the obvious choice if the anti-UPA numbers add up. And I suspect that this is what it really is: if ‘Modi-as-PM’ Plan A fails, ‘Nitish-as-PM’ Plan B is there to be rolled out.