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Nitish’s exit from the NDA forces Modi to shy away from Ayodhya and exposes him to a dilemma that had once dogged Advani

As the JD-U firmed up its separation from the BJP, Narendra Modi’s decision to quietly cancel his proposed visit to Ayodhya did not get the attention it deserved. This change of mind, which became known to the rest of the country only after it became a big talking point in Uttar Pradesh, was a clear pointer to the troubles that lay ahead for Narendra Modi even as he was trying to placate LK Advani in New Delhi.

Mahant Ntrityagopal Das, president of the Shri Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas Trust, had invited Modi to participate in his birthday celebration—billed as an ‘Amrit Mahotsav’—organised in Ayodhya by the Sangh Parivar and sundry sadhus affiliated to it. Planned as a four-day event, the Gujarat Chief Minister was scheduled to visit Ayodhya on 19 June, its first day. Besides participating in the Mahotsav, Modi was also scheduled to offer prayers to Lord Rama at Ayodhya’s disputed site, according to Kamal Nayan Das, disciple and heir apparent of Mahant Nrityagopal Das. “My guru had personally talked to Narendra Modiji and he had said that he would attend the function,” Kamal Nayan Das tells Open on the phone, “But later [Modi] called back to say that he won’t be able to visit Ayodhya.”

On the face of it, the 16 June split of the NDA and the cancellation of Modi’s Ayodhya trip may appear unrelated. But the sequence of events matters, with the decision coming at a time JD-U leader Nitish Kumar was accusing the BJP of pursuing a “divisive agenda”.

As Kamal Nayan Das has indicated, Modi was tempted to visit Ayodhya, given the central position that UP with its 80 Lok Sabha seats occupies in the BJP’s strategy for the next parliamentary polls. His close aide and BJP General Secretary Amit Shah, who is in charge of this crucial state, has been quietly stepping up efforts to polarise UP’s votes. Merely a week ago, while responding to a VHP resolution demanding a law for the construction of a temple in Ayodhya, he said, “The construction of a Rama temple in Ayodhya was never off the BJP’s agenda.”

A visit to the town by Modi—merely days before the launch of the BJP’s nationwide jail bharo stir against the UPA Government’s policies—would have been a natural corollary to the groundwork being done by his pointsman in UP. For the Hindutva icon widely seen as the perpetrator of Gujarat’s worst ever communal carnage that took place a little over a decade ago, there could not have been a more apt way to start the party’s campaign for the next General Election.

Yet, as Nitish geared up to announce the termination of the JD-U’s ties with the BJP, Modi dialled Nrityagopal Das to politely refuse his invitation. Clearly, Nitish had put a spanner in Modi’s plan to quietly push ahead with his Hindutva agenda even as he pushed into motion a high-decibel campaign based on rhetoric of the so-called ‘Gujarat model of development’. This blending of the two is how Modi’s strategists see him winning the Lok Sabha for the party. The strategy, which would have been rolled out with Modi’s Ayodhya visit, has now been temporarily shelved following the developments in Bihar.

Modi can still change his mind and reschedule his visit, but his telephone call to Nrityagopal Das has made one thing clear: blending Hindutva with the rhetoric of development is not easily done. To harp too strongly on Hindutva is to raise concerns about communal strife in the country and remind people of the events of March 2002 in Gujarat.

The JD-U’s exit from the NDA has underlined how the two agendas are mutually exclusive. The message of the split has even more gravity because it has come not from an opposition leader or party, but from a party that has so far been the BJP’s largest ally. The need to underplay the BJP’s Hindutva plank, which was flagged by Nitish Kumar as the reason for his party’s exit, was evident even in statements made by BJP leader Sushil Kumar Modi, who, addressing his own press conference once JD-U leaders had made their divorce declaration on 16 June, called the Gujarat CM an individual from a humble background who belongs to a backward caste. “There are some who fear that for the first time an individual is emerging who is not from dynastic politics, who hails from a humble background and is from a backward class,” said Bihar’s former deputy CM.

But if the jolt that Nitish Kumar’s exit gave Modi has forced him and his supporters to go slow on Hindutva, any prolonged attempt to do so would annoy saffron cadres and supporters in whose name Modi was given charge in Goa of the party’s electoral campaign as a signal of his ascent to its top.

The dilemma has already started rearing its head in UP. Sangh hardliners like Ashok Singhal, Praveen Togadia, Yogi Adityanath and yoga guru Ramdev have started arriving in Ayodhya well in advance, not just to participate in the Mahotsav but also pressure Modi to change his mind once again. For two days after Modi cancelled his visit, there was considerable confusion over the issue. After a news agency ran a story, quoting a VHP spokesperson in Ayodhya, that Modi would indeed visit the holy town, the Chief Minister’s office in Ahmedabad issued a clarification on 18 June saying that on 13 June Mahant Nritya Gopal Das had called him and invited him to take part in the proposed Amrit Mahotsav but he declined the invitation citing a busy schedule. The same day, the VHP spokesperson too issued a statement claiming that he was misquoted by the news agency and that he had never said Modi would visit.

The excitement that Modi’s proposed visit to Ayodhya, despite his silent U-turn on the issue, has generated among Sangh hardliners is not difficult to understand. Modi, after all, is the ‘best Hindutva face’ they have had in independent India. From their point of view, a return to the Ramjanmabhoomi issue—once the BJP’s core political agenda but pushed into the background in recent years as it appeared inconvenient for the smooth functioning of the NDA—is what they expect at a time when all eyes are fixed on the 2014 polls. And in a way, it is also critical to any hopes the BJP has of doing well in UP, without which the party would have no hope of a big jump in its overall Lok Sabha tally. The party won 41 Lok Sabha seats in that state in 1991, 49 in 1996 and 52 in 1998. In the 1999 General Election, as the party softened its position on Ayodhya in response to coalition compulsions, the BJP managed to win 29 seats, although it was still the top party in the state. Ever since then, the BJP’s tally has kept falling in UP: it won less than a dozen seats there in the subsequent Lok Sabha polls of 2004 and 2009.

But a revival of the Ayodhya issue would not only make things difficult on the development front, it is also the worst thing any prime ministerial aspirant looking for allies can do. For much of the 1990s, even as the BJP was gaining electorally in UP while Advani laboured to polarise votes with various yatras, it was Vajpayee who kept away from this effort and became the Prime Minister of India. That happened simply because the Hindutva card had made Advani unacceptable to the BJP’s allies. However, by the time Advani realised this, it was too late for him. It was to undo this taint that Advani went to the extent of praising Jinnah’s secularism, little realising that it would lead to a loss of support from the hardliners who had till then been his hardiest supporters. The dilemma that did Advani in is what enabled Modi’s rise, but it has not disappeared. Today, it is not Advani but Modi who faces it.

Without support from a number of allies, the saffron party cannot think of making a serious bid for power after the next Lok Sabha election. For now, the BJP is merely left with two allies and both of them are numerically insignificant—the Akali Dal and Shiv Sena. Nitish Kumar’s action has thus made a Modi-led NDA look like an impractical proposition. This crucial fact had been underlined by a senior BJP leader in a private conversation with some reporters in Delhi before Modi was appointed the chief of the party’s campaign committee. “Modi can never act like a magnet, which is such an essential trait for any leader in an era of coalition politics,” said the BJP leader, a member of Advani’s camp.

While it is true that the JD-U’s exit has given a free run to Modi in the BJP, it comes with a rider. If he fails in these polls, it could result in a dramatic regrouping of the party’s anti-Modi forces. The JD-U’s exit has made it imperative for Modi to show his magic. Each of his moves will now be watched closely, and each of his failures would aggravate his problems. The anti-Modi forces within the BJP and whatever is left of the NDA would then blame it all on the Hindutva poster boy.

Not just that. Modi’s woes are unlikely to end even if he leads the BJP to the status of the next Lok Sabha’s single largest party. The 2002 carnage in Gujarat, which is sure to trail him along his campaign path, will not disappear even after the polls. The Shiv Sena and Akali Dal may not have problems in accepting Modi as their PM candidate, but in terms of numbers, these parties would hardly have much to add to the BJP’s tally. Most potential allies with significant number would object to Modi as India’s Prime Minister.

That would then turn Modi vulnerable within the BJP. And there is no dearth of those in the saffron party who want to play a Vajpayee. Advani is certainly on top of this list, but then there are many others who would like to turn Modi into Advani. That also explains how delicate the Gujarat CM’s position may become in either case—if his magic works, the question of forming an alliance may wreck his chances, and if it does not, he would be blamed for all that afflicts the BJP. In any case, Advani, who at present appears to have been completely swept away by Modi’s wave in the party, is down but not out yet. The BJP’s war with itself has merely been postponed. In the best or worst-case scenario (depending on one’s viewpoint), the BJP could be faced with the choice of assuming power with Advani as PM and Modi smarting on the sidelines.

Where does all this leave the JD-U? While the party has created trouble for Modi and the BJP, it has not made things easy for itself. Nitish Kumar, the face of the party, is not of a caste group with a large numerical presence in Bihar. The state’s Chief Minister, therefore, has over the years been cultivating a support base among ‘Mahadalits’, Muslims and ‘extremely backward castes’ (EBCs). The state has 22 Dalit castes that account for over 15 per cent of the population. Of these, Paswans, who constitute the core vote base of the Lok Janshakti Party of Ramvilas Paswan, are the most numerous, making up a little less than half of Bihar’s Dalit population. In an attempt to carve out a vote base for himself, Nitish Kumar has been nurturing all other Scheduled Castes, having declared them ‘Mahadalits’ (or the poorest among Dalits) and announced a series of packages for their upliftment. Initially, Nitish had grouped 18 Scheduled Castes under this term, keeping Paswans, Passis, Dhobis and Chamars out. But later, his list of Mahadalits expanded to include the last three of these too.

The CM has spoken of their empowerment. But, come election time, these voters are still susceptible to local pressure and need a social alliance with one or another dominant caste that would give them confidence to emerge from their homes to cast their votes. As a group, the Kurmi caste that Nitish belongs to does not have the numbers to play such a role, and by parting ways with the BJP, the Bihar CM has lost the possibility of getting such support—not to mention votes—from BJP-supporting ‘upper’ castes and even EBCs to an extent.

The 2 June Lok Sabha bypoll in Maharajganj exhibited how vulnerable his Mahadalit voters are in Bihar. It is widely believed that in this contest between Thakurs (supporting the RJD’s candidate) and Bhumihars (the JD-U’s), the two dominant ‘upper’ castes, the constituency’s Mahadalit voters could not muster the courage needed to venture out to polling booths.

No less nervous is Nitish Kumar about Muslim voters, who account for over 15 per cent of Bihar’s electorate. Wooing the relatively backward among them, ‘Pasmanda Muslims’ as they are called, has been a key part of his winning formula. In the RJD’s heyday, it was Yadavs and Muslims who kept Lalu Prasad in power, and Nitish’s ability to split and claim a section of the latter is seen as one of the main reasons for the RJD’s rout some years ago.

Despite his party’s alliance with the BJP (now snapped), the CM has been consistent in his efforts to keep Muslim voters from drifting back to the RJD. In fact, during seat-sharing talks with the BJP before Bihar’s last Assembly polls in 2010, it was primarily because of the JD-U leader’s plans to expand his party’s base among this minority group that he traded some of his winnable seats—offering them to the BJP—for those in the Muslim-dominated districts of Kishanganj, Araria, Purnia and Katihar. In the 2005 state polls, these seats had been contested by the BJP.

The Maharajganj bypoll result, however, indicates that the JD-U, despite all its efforts to win over Pasmanda Muslims, remains precariously placed vis-à-vis minority favour. In this byelection, the majority of Muslims are said to have voted for the RJD candidate Prabhunath Singh, who emerged victorious by a huge margin. A realignment of Yadav and Muslim votes is the last thing Nitish Kumar would want in his state. It would be the end of his politics. But, given the trends, this is the combination that would have taken shape had the JD-U accepted Modi’s leadership of the BJP (and thus NDA).

Modi’s ascent in the BJP had already started pushing Muslims towards the RJD. Even before the bypoll result, in the past couple of months, Nitish had sensed the setting in of anti-incumbency against his government. Crowds at Lalu’s rallies had begun to swell, and although they are not yet large enough to pose a threat to the incumbent government in Patna, they could herald a shift in Muslim vote preferences.

For Nitish Kumar, much hinges on whether Muslim votes, now that he has moved away from Modi and the BJP, return to the JD-U, whether Mahadalits actually come out and vote in the Lok Sabha polls, whether he is able to wrest the support of EBCs and ‘upper’ castes, and also whether the Congress aligns with his party (over Lalu’s).

What is certain is that had the Bihar CM not terminated his ties with the Modi-led BJP, the secular polarisation in the state—particularly between Muslims and Yadavs—would have been so intense that his fate would have been sealed not just in the General Election, but worse still in the next Assembly polls scheduled in 2015. From Nitish Kumar’s point of view, therefore, the risk that he has taken is well worth it. Several leaders in his party believe that he has secured the next Assembly even if he fares badly in the upcoming Lok Sabha election.