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Isn't it too late for Nitish Kumar to mount the moral high horse?

By T V R Shenoy
June 23, 2010 10:13 IST
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Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar made his reputation by focussing on development. Why is it that even he has to follow the hollow rhetoric of 'communal' and 'secular' when the time comes to woo voters? asks T V R Shenoy.

Two thousand, two hundred and seventy-five years ago the ruler of Magadha learned from the experiences of Kalinga. It seems that the contemporary master of Pataliputra is set to repeat that episode, learning a new lesson from the modern master of the coastal state.

Yet as the grandfather of the Marxists once said history repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce.

Ashoka was so horrified by the devastation caused by war that he renounced unnecessary violence. He did not, however, renounce Kalinga.

Nitish Kumar was so horrified by a photograph -- apparently! -- that he is on the verge of renouncing a -- seemingly! -- unnecessary ally. He will not, however, resign the chief ministership.

Bihar must elect a new Vidhan Sabha at some point in the next six months. Muslims constitute 17 per cent of the state according to the last census (which is almost a decade out of date). There is a feeling that the chief minister of Bihar believes that he can woo this large chunk by proving his 'secular' credentials, meaning jettisoning a fifteen year-old alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party.

The blueprint for this manoeuvre was seemingly drawn up by Naveen Patnaik, the Biju Janata Dal chief minister of Orissa. In 2009, on the verge of the general election, the Biju Janata Dal walked out of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance. The motive was, reportedly, the violence against Christian missionaries in Kandhamal district. (Exactly why the chief minister waited for a year -- the attacks took place in 2007-2008 -- was never given any satisfactory explanation.)

The upshot was that the Biju Janata Dal won smashing victories both in the Vidhan Sabha and in the Lok Sabha elections, held simultaneously in 2009. It won 14 of the 21 Lok Sabha seats and 103 of the 147 Vidhan Sabha seats. You cannot argue with those numbers.

But where Naveen Patnaik could fall back on Kandhamal as a reason there was no such episode in Bihar to use in while divorcing one's BJP partner. It is not just that the Janata Dal-United -- under one name or another – has been hand in hand with the BJP for fifteen years, there is also the fact that the partnership has worked smoothly while in power for the past half a decade.

The public face of the BJP in Bihar during Nitish Kumar's chief ministership has been Sushil Kumar Modi, deputy chief minister and finance minister. (He is only the third to be deputy chief minister of Bihar, the others being Anugrah Narayan Sinha and Karpoori Thakur.) It would be hard to accuse Modi of being 'communal'.

Sushil Kumar Modi's wife, you see, is Jessie George, a Christian lady whose roots are in Kerala. (Doesn't quite fit the popular conception of an RSS member, does it?) Back in the days before he was surrounded by layers of ministerial security, Modi would escort his wife to church each Sunday, patiently waiting outside on his scooter until services finished. It is going to be slightly difficult to paint such a man as 'anti-secular'.

Nor has Sushil Kumar Modi been anything but an ideal colleague. He has been both honest and diligent. If Bihar is now on the highway to growth the state's finance minister deserves some credit for the fact.

But if one Modi won't serve, the BJP had another at hand didn't it? And thus began a highly-contrived tiff with Narendra Modi.

Would it be fair to describe this play for Muslim votes as cynical in the extreme?

Let us check the facts. Nitish Kumar was the Union railway minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee ministry when there were riots in Gujarat in 2002, and he did not resign at the time, did he? And the chief minister of Bihar knew who his Gujarat counterpart was when he accepted a cheque for flood relief after the Kosi rose in spate, didn't he? Isn't it slightly late in the day for Nitish Kumar to mount the moral high horse?

I am sure the contrived quarrel shall offer plenty of opportunity for the likes of Lalu Prasad Yadav to mock Nitish Kumar. The chief minister probably won't care about any number of jibes if he wins as handsomely as did Naveen Patnaik.

We need not grudge the hard-working chief minister of Bihar his fun but the episode raises a troubling question. Nitish Kumar made his reputation as someone that chose to focus on development. Why is it that even he has to follow back on the hollow rhetoric of 'communal' and 'secular' when the time comes to woo voters?

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T V R Shenoy