Political watchers in India would distinctly remember that rally in 2009 in Punjab when Narendra Modi, then the Gujarat chief minister, and Nitish Kumar, then and now the Bihar CM, raised hands in front of a multitude of supporters. They might have been holding hands and displaying a show of strength as alliance partners, but the tension between the two leaders was very much palpable. Their parties (the BJP and JD(U)), at that point, may have been strapping allies but Modi and Nitish had a shared history of antagonism and rivalry.
Six years on, no longer allies, that antagonism has deepened, scraping out what has emerged to be interesting parallels between the two chieftains. While Modi won round 1 by winning the Lok Sabha elections comprehensively last year and establishing himself in 7 RCR, a shaken Nitish now plans to take revenge by stamping out the BJP in his home turf of Bihar. Two months ahead of that all-important election, a question-answer session that Nitish conducted on Twitter on Wednesday holds key to the shape of election campaigns that we would get to see in Bihar.
First, a background. The Q&A session came hours after Nitish wrote an open letter to PM Modi asking him to ‘take back his words’ when the latter had questioned the former’s ‘DNA’ during a rally in late July. Nitish charged that PM Modi had insulted and denigrated the legacy of Bihar when he criticised his ‘DNA’. At the Muzaffarpur rally, PM Modi had criticised Nitish for insulting his political arch-rivals like Jitan Ram Manjhi and said that ‘there was some problem with Nitish Kumar’s DNA.’ Interestingly, the rally had come just hours after the two leaders shared stage at an official central government function.
Now, on to some of the insights derived from Nitish’s Twitter Q&A.
‘The social media weapon’
An interesting feature of the Twitter Q&A is the medium itself. Nitish is a late entrant to the social media juggernaut, but in the short span of time (read 200+ tweets), he has been effectively using the space to further his views and engage his audience. The Q&A can also be seen as a way of Nitish telling PM Modi, “Two can play at this game.” After all, the Prime Minister is the ‘king on Twitter’ and has always used the medium comprehensively to command a faithful legion of followers waiting to RT his tweets. With 14 million followers, PM Modi is the most followed Indian political leader on Twitter and the third-most followed world leader on the microblogging platform.
At 70,000 followers, Nitish may be way behind the PM but efforts to catch hold of the suave, urban, answer-demanding audience is well in progress. And unlike PM Modi, who has often shown reluctance in engaging with journalists directly, Nitish took questions and answered questions from prominent journalists boldly in the Q&A on Wednesday.
‘The Bihari asmita’
If one were to go through the Twitter timeline of Nitish Kumar during the Q&A, a prominent feature of the narrative is the ‘Bihari asmita’ that the CM tries to weave. In response to a journalist, Nitish makes it clear that the furore he raised over PM Modi’s ‘DNA’ remark is not an election issue, but that of ‘Bihari Asmita’ (pride of Bihar).
. @BDUTT It is not an election issue for me. It is a question of ‘Bihari Asmita’.
— Nitish Kumar (@NitishKumar) August 5, 2015
Now, has anyone got a deja vu? Yes, the emotion or feeling that Nitish has raised, has been repeatedly voiced and played to the gallery over the years by none other than his bete noire Narendra Modi. In his 12 years in Gandhinagar, Modi, as the CM of Gujarat, has talked about the ‘Gujarati asmita’ (pride of Gujarat) and fashioned himself as the man behind its success and fortunes. And it must be said that Modi’s game worked. In the 12 years of his regime, he was the start and end of the BJP in Gujarat. He was able to swat aside his rivals within and outside the party and establish complete dominion. Today, Nitish, knowingly or unknowingly, is playing the same game.
In another tweet, Nitish makes it quite clear that the ‘DNA’ remark of the Prime Minister was wrong because he is the ‘son of Bihar’ and an insult to his ‘DNA’ should be seen as insulting the ‘DNA’ of the people of the state.
.@firstpost I am Son of Bihar so biologically my DNA is similar to that of people of Bihar. (1/2)
— Nitish Kumar (@NitishKumar) August 5, 2015
While Nitish’s Twitter interview was indeed a success with him claiming that he received over 500 questions, the shape of the forthcoming election campaign is already visible. Nitish may have left a sour taste in many mouths with his alliance with his one-time arch-rival Lalu Prasad Yadav, but it is clear that he is leaving no stone unturned to make a resounding comeback.