Before a major heavyweight boxing title bout, there are sideshows on the day’s entertainment. Call it a teaser or a trailer, the aim is to whet the appetite of the fan for the real thing that is to follow. In political terms, we’ve just had our first taste of the electoral battle that is to follow in 2014: Nitish Kumar versus Narendra Modi may not be the final countdown, but the appetiser before the main course.
On the face of it, Kumar and Modi have been positioned as rivals for the big prize: who will be the opposition’s prime ministerial candidate in the next general election? The truth is, both of them are setting themselves up for a contest in which neither of them may end up qualifying for the ultimate shoot-out. It may be attractive for the media to pit a Kumar versus a Modi: the legatee of Mandal politics versus the Hindutva hero is a clash that offers striking ideological contrasts. The reality is, both Kumar and Modi are rather similar individuals and, in many ways, represent an identical trend in Indian politics: the regional satrap as an independent power centre.
In Bihar, Nitish Kumar is the Janata Dal United. In the seven years in power, he has systematically eliminated all potential rivals within his party. A Sharad Yadav may be the NDA convenor, but has been reduced to a drawing room demagogue while Kumar strengthens his mass leader credentials. No other leader matters in a party that is now subsumed in the Kumar persona.
Narendra Modi in Gujarat is no different. For all the rantings of a Keshubhai Patel and other BJP dissidents, the fact is there is only one leader in the Gujarat BJP today. Ten years ago, a Praveen Togadia might have competed with Modi for the title of ‘Hindu Hriday Samrat’; today the VHP leader has been pushed to the margins. No central leader of the BJP has any control over Gujarat; Modi is truly an autonomous monarch of the state.
Their working styles, both personal and political, are not dissimilar. Modi left his home as a teenager to become a full-time pracharak. Not for him the trappings of family life or a desire to pass the baton to a new generation. He is a loner, a hermit-politician solely driven by the single-minded pursuit of power. Kumar too, has determinedly kept his family away from public life, choosing again to be a political sanyasi with no real attachment to home.
Both are OBCs who have dismantled traditional power hierarchies in their state. Rather than rely upon fellow politicians, both Kumar and Modi prefer to work through the faceless bureaucracy. Their trust in bureaucrats and not partymen reflects a mindset which is uncomfortable dealing with political peers who might challenge their authority. It also enables them to reduce their dependence on the party apparatus and deal almost directly with the masses.
There are other similarities. Both Kumar and Modi have a reputation for financial integrity, administrative rigour and yes, astute brand management. There is little space for dissent in Modi’s Gujarat or Kumar’s Bihar; the media has been harnessed to build personality cults around the respective individuals. Any questioning of the carefully cultivated image is sought to be crushed with the ruthlessness of an autocratic leader.
So is the Kumar-Modi clash a confrontation between two strong regional potentates with similar personalities, or is it a clash of competing worldviews, one emerging from the caste cauldron of the Indo-Gangetic plain, the other from the Hindutva laboratory of western India? Yes, the political legacy of Kumar with its strong roots in the JP movement and of Modi with his RSS training have fundamental differences, but that alone cannot explain their fierce divide.
After all, Kumar’s deputy, Sushil Modi — the other’ Modi — is a long-serving RSS member, and yet seems to have developed a close rapport with the Bihar chief minister. If ideology alone was such a sticking point then how did Kumar succeed in building such a proximate relationship with the BJP leadership in the state?
Ideology is often a veil in a political tug of war, particularly in a coalition era where convenience matters more than conviction. In Bihar, the imperatives of coalition politics have forced Kumar to perform a delicate balancing act: co-habitation with the BJP but not at the cost of alienating the large and growing 18% Muslim population in the state. Conscious of the thin line he treads, Kumar cannot share a stage with the Gujarat chief minister because it would be seen as the ultimate ‘compromise’ with majoritarian politics.
On the other hand, as a potent symbol of Hindu assertiveness, Modi cannot turn his back on those who measure their identity in religious terms. He cannot, for example, appear contrite for Gujarat 2002 because it would be seen as a sign of weakness by his core constituency.
In a strange way, Modi and Kumar need each other to consolidate their respective vote bases. Kumar needs to pitch the battle as one between a ‘secular’ Bihar and a ‘communal’ Gujarat to define his own distinctive appeal. Modi needs to create a conflict between a ‘progressive’ Gujarat and a ‘backward’ ‘çasteist’ Bihar to strengthen his own credentials as a ‘modern’ leader. But by pitching the stakes so high, and turning a power struggle into an ideological war, both Kumar and Modi run the risk of knocking each other out even before the main contest for prime ministership has begun. Strangely, not too many in the Opposition seem willing to play referee and call a halt to the punching. Maybe, those watching from the sidelines are hoping that a Modi versus Kumar bruising battle will enable a third face to slip through as a compromise candidate for the top job. The fun has only just begun!
The views expressed by the author are personal