As Nitish Kumar takes fresh guard as Bihar Chief Minister, with Tejashwi Yadav as his deputy, former Union Law Minister and the BJP’s Patna Saheb MP Ravi Shankar Prasad speaks to The Indian Express about his party’s struggles to hold on to its allies, if the state BJP will project a leader who can take on Nitish, and if the current “seven parties versus BJP” situation warrants the reformulation of the party’s socio-political combinations in Bihar. Excerpts:
Ravi Shankar Prasad: By siding with the Congress yet again, Nitish Kumar has finally sounded the death knell of the socialist legacy of Dr Rammanohar Lohia, whose politics was all about anti-Congressism. Lalu Prasad Yadav has never been a conventional socialist, Nitish Kumar can claim to be so. But his latest flip-flop is troubling. This is perhaps the biggest flip-flop by a leader of Nitish Kumar’s stature and experience and may become a test case in political history. Such a flip-flop is quite unheard of.
But why are your allies leaving one after another? Nitish alleges that the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) under AB Vajpayee was assimilative while the one under Narendra Modi tries to gobble up its allies.
Ravi Shankar Prasad: It is not true at all. The Akali Dal, the Shiv Sena and the JD(U) left on their own. Uddhhav Thackeray left because of his own ambitions, the Akali Dal had its reasons. We never asked our allies to go. Take the example of Nitish Kumar. What is the longest he has stayed in an alliance? He was with us from 1995 to 2013. Before that, he was briefly with Lalu Prasad and later in the Samata Party. Narendra Modi always held him in high esteem for his honesty and development credentials.
Of the eight times he has become CM, the NDA made him CM five times. Even when his party was reduced to two seats in the 2014 polls, we gave him an equal number of seats — 17 — to contest in the 2019 polls even if it meant denying tickets to five of our sitting MPs. After the 2020 poll results, in which we got 74 seats compared to JD(U)’s 43, Narendra Modi made Nitish Kumar the CM. We have always shown large-heartedness towards Nitish. Our fight was based on the twin planks of corruption and the misrule of Lalu Prasad. But he landed up in the Lalu camp again. At least, he should have had the basic courtesy to tell our central leaders that he was leaving.
But don’t you think that BJP national president JP Nadda’s “regional parties will be finished” statement could have alarmed Nitish? Doesn’t the BJP want regional parties to co-exist?
Ravi Shankar Prasad: Of course, we want regional parties to co-exist. We do respect them. Our national president’s statement was misinterpreted. He said in the context of regional parties practising dynastic politics. Our PM also spoke of the threat of dynastic politics and praised Nitish for being an exception. But Nitish had to find some reason to leave us.
Why is Nitish Kumar so important as an ally for any Bihar combination?
Ravi Shankar Prasad: He is nothing on his own. While people like Mulayam Singh Yadav, Mayawati, Mamata Banerjee, KCR (K Chandrashekar Rao), MK Stalin and Lalu Prasad became CMs because of their strength, here is a man called Nitish Kumar who has no courage to contest on his own. When he decided to leave us, why did he not press for a fresh mandate? He contested the 2014 polls alone and saw the result. He has clung to power with the help of others over the years. He may be an honest politician but he is politically immoral.
Isn’t the indispensability of Nitish Kumar in Bihar politics because of the BJP’s inability to project its own leader? Don’t you think it is time the Bihar BJP has a leader who can challenge Nitish?
Ravi Shankar Prasad: We have no dearth of leadership in the party. We believe in collective leadership, with Narendra Modi being our sole leader to inspire the rank and file. We are thinking of the 2024 Lok Sabha polls. The kind of transformative politics Narendra Modi has practised over the last few years to bring about a tectonic shift in national politics has appealed to all sections of society and everyone sees our PM as their leader. As for the 2025 Bihar polls, the central leadership alone will take a call on whether there is a need to project a leader in the state or not.
Now that Nitish is talking about ‘seven parties vs the BJP’, does not the BJP feel nervous about a social combination that looks unassailable?
Ravi Shankar Prasad: How many parties ganged up against Narendra Modi in the past elections? What happened? We have been able to expand to the northeast now because of the politics of development and the theme of taking along everyone. We are not at all awed by parties of conflicting ideologies getting together to challenge us. Elections are still far away. Let us first see how the Nitish-Tejashwi combination unfolds.
What about Nitish Kumar’s allegation that attempts are being made to disturb the atmosphere in the state and Tejashwi accusing the BJP of disturbing communal peace?
Ravi Shankar Prasad: Is this happening only now in 2022? Was the atmosphere in the state good in 2017 when Nitish came back to us, was it bad when he contested the Lok Sabha polls with us in 2019 and the Assembly polls in 2020? Nitish Kumar should try to give some convincing replies. As for the allegations of communal disharmony are concerned, are we fringe elements? Our government has been ruling the country for more than eight years. Conventionally, Muslims do not vote for us. Does it mean that the benefits of Ujjawala Yojana do not go to them? Everyone also benefitted from telephone connectivity and the digital revolution. Electricity has reached villagers from all castes and religions. We have big schemes for farmers. Like others, Muslim farmers have also benefitted. It is our Constitutional duty and moral obligation to do so. We have amended triple talaq and I am fortunate to have played some role as the then Union law minister. Our party believes in sabka saath, sabka prayaas and sabka vikaas (with all, development for all based on everyone’s efforts).
There is a lot of media buzz about Nitish having the potential to emerge as the nucleus of anti-Narendra Modi politics.
Ravi Shankar Prasad: There is a big ego clash in the Opposition camp. There is Rahul Gandhi, there is Arvind Kejriwal, there is also the hidden ambition of MK Stalin and there are also Mamata Banerjee and KCR. Several of these parties contest elections in states against each other. They are a bundle of contradictions. Right from Deve Gowda days to the Mulayam-Lalu fight to the Lalu-Nitish fight, the Janata Dal in its various avatars has had many contradictions. The country will not like to regress. The Lok Sabha election has a different matrix. People will vote for Narendra Modi for security and stability. The Opposition could unite on its choice of President and Vice President nominees. It shows how disunited and confused these parties are.
Is Bihar the final frontier for your party? The BJP has not been able to win the Bihar polls on its own.
Ravi Shankar Prasad: Who knows? It may be different this time if people wish to vote for Narendra Modi and give the BJP a chance. After all, they must be tired of the 35-plus years of rule of socialist leaders such as Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar (in between, there were Rabri Devi and Jitan Ram Manjhi) … We will also stitch together a good alliance.