After forming the Mahagathbandhan (Grand Alliance) government and taking oath as the Bihar Chief Minister for a record eighth time Wednesday, a day after he walked out of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) again, Janata Dal (United) supremo Nitish Kumar said that if BJP leader Sushil Kumar Modi had been his deputy CM the situation leading to his snapping ties with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) would not have arisen.
The BJP, which was stunned by Nitish’s move, pushed Sushil,70, to the margins of the Bihar political scene despite the fact that the latter had enjoyed a warm and close relationship with the CM in their successive coalition governments as his deputy from November 2005 to June 2013 and again from July 2017 to December 2020.
Nitish also had a seamless communication line with former Union minister late Arun Jaitley. The Bihar BJP circles then used to dub it as Nitish’s “Jaitley channel”. Sushil was also known to be close to Jaitley. So, the relations between the two NDA allies had remained smooth at both the state and central levels.
However, their ties developed the first crack during the BJP National Executive meet held in Patna in 2010, when big advertisements were published in Bihar newspapers showing the then Gujarat CM and current Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Nitish Kumar in the same frame from a picture from a 2009 Haryana rally. Upset by the ads, Nitish cancelled the dinner he was going to host for the visiting BJP leaders.
Although the then ruling JD(U)-BJP alliance had survived but some hiccups remained that eventually reached a breaking point in June 2013. But even then, Nitish had kept Sushil and Jaitley posted about his reservations about Modi’s expected projection as the BJP-led NDA’s PM candidate for the 2014 Lok Sabha polls.
But now, Nitish did not bother to share his concerns with the BJP central leadership and took them by surprise.
Less than a month ago, on July 12, PM Modi shared stage with Nitish at a function held in Patna as part of the Bihar Assembly’s centenary celebrations, where the latter welcomed the PM. PM Modi also praised Nitish, calling him a “popular leader” and a “valuable ally”, highlighting his role in ensuring 50 per cent reservation for women in Panchayat Raj institutions.
A hint of a discord that the BJP leaders might have sensed was Nitish’s move to skip four back-to-back central dispensation-held meetings, including the NITI Aayog governing council meeting called by the PM, in recent days.
Yet, when Union home minister Amit Shah called up Nitish Monday, a day before he severed his alliance with the BJP, he reportedly told the former that there was “no issue”. A JD(U) leader said: “Even though Union minister Dharmendra Pradhan came to meet Nitish Kumar recently and PM, Shah and Nadda would intermittently call him up, there used to be no warmth in his communications with the BJP brass like he had during Sushil Modi’s stint as his deputy.”
He also said, “Both Nitish and Sushil entered politics through the JP Movement in the 1970s and knew each other very well. In the course of their partnership as CM and DCM, if there were any reports of any communal incident from anywhere in the state, Nitish would call up Sushil and another BJP leader Nand Kishore Yadav to hep him defuse it. But with the present set of BJP leaders, Sanjay Jaiswal as their state president and two deputy CMs, Tarkishore Prasad and Renu Devi, there was a huge communication gap.”
However, it was said to be his long-standing camaraderie with Nitish that cost him the DCM’s post after the alliance returned to power in the 2020 Assembly polls. Sushil defended himself from the charge coming from within the BJP that he was “too close” to Nitish to their leadership’s discomfort, saying “what he did had the backing of the central leadership and it was important to stay in power than confront the CM”.
When the BJP top brass called him to Delhi after the 2020 poll results, Sushil was reportedly told that the “leadership responsibility in government would now go to the younger leaders”. However, Tarkishore Prasad, 64, and Renu Devi, 62, were picked as the DCMs, much to the surpise of everyone. They were reportedly chosen as they belong to the OBC and EBC communities, respectively.
The BJP, however, did not attempt to make a leader with some significant political heft Nitish’s deputy. It wanted the party to come out of Nitish’s shadows, and its leaders started to attack the CM in a case of political adventurism. A senior JD(U) leader said: “It is a standard power theory to remain loyal and submissive when you are number two. BJP perhaps had been desperate to become number one against Nitish and ended up losing us”.
The BJP seemed to have looked for stop-gap arrangements. Even though it had in its ranks leaders like Ravi Shankar Prasad, Giriraj Singh, Sanjay Jaiswal, Mangal Pandey and Shahnawaz Hussain, it perhaps suprised and disappointed its cadre by choosing Tarkishore and Renu as DCMs over these well-known faces. Ujiyarpur MP and Union minister Nityanand Rai tried to throw his hat into the ring because of his closeness to Amit Shah and Union minister Bhupendra Yadav but his being a Yadav put the BJP in a dilemma – given the fact that the Yadav community along with Muslims has remained the RJD’s core vote base – and his leadership candidature remained more a matter of self-projection.
Sushil, a Rajya Sabha MP now, continues to raise state and national issues, but he prefers to keep a low profile. When BJP leaders like Bisfi MLA Haribhushan Thakur would issue anti-Muslim statements at regular intervals upsetting Nitish, the party leadership would never rein him in. It was kind of free-for-all in the BJP. Any second-rung leader would take on Nitish and get away with it. Even Sanjay Jaiswal would occasionally go after Nitish over issues like population control and law and order. The absence of a Bihar BJP in-charge like Bhupendra Yadav also contributed to a rise in tension in its relations with the JD(U).
A senior BJP leader said: “Sushil Modi still commands great respect. After he was sidelined in Bihar BJP politics, no other leader seems to have filled his slot… We do not know what Centre wants. Getting a small-stature leader might work elsewhere, not in Bihar, especially when you have a leader of Nitish Kumar’s stature to match up to. Now that we are all by ourselves, let us have a leader in BJP in Bihar.”
There had been a growing discomfort in Nitish’s relations with the BJP since they formed the government again after the 2020 polls, with the BJP as the senior partner this time. Finally, the “RCP Singh model of conspiracy” might have given him the handle to pull the plug on it.