On the face of it, Gowda’s and Kumar’s responses to PM Modi’s yoga promotion project gave an impression of restless souls trapped in the wrong bodies. But are they?
There were two contrasting pictures on International Yoga Day last Thursday: Former Prime Minister and JD (S) president H.D. Deve Gowda, 85, performing asanas in bed at Bengaluru under the glare of TV cameras, and the conspicuous absence of Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar from his government-organised yoga event at Patna’s Patlipura Sports Complex.
Gowda’s son H.D. Kumaraswamy heads the Congress-JD (S) coalition government in Karnataka, while Nitish leads the ruling BJP-JD (U) dispensation in Bihar. It was a role reversal of sorts, or so it would seem to someone unfamiliar with the manoeuvres of these political acrobats.
Few in political circles were surprised. It’s poll season again and there is talk of a mahagatbandhan, or anti-BJP federal front. It’s a fanciful idea, given its inherent contradictions marked by the conflicting interests of the parties and individuals expected to constitute the front. But seasoned practitioners of realpolitik see in it another opportunity to achieve their goals — for both themselves and the party.
On the face of it, Gowda’s and Kumar’s responses to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pet yoga promotion project gave an impression of restless souls trapped in the wrong bodies. But are they?
Gowda, who was imprisoned during the Emergency, is credited with keeping the BJP out of power in Karnataka by compelling his son to go with the Congress. His son, chief minister Kumaraswamy, candidly told his party colleagues that his first choice was the BJP but he had to yield to his father.
In fact, on the day of the Karnataka assembly poll results, as trends indicated a hung verdict, the BJP sent a missive to Kumaraswamy about its willingness to form a coalition government. That was even before the Congress reached out to him with the offer of chief ministership, something the saffron party was ambiguous about. Later in the day, even as BJP leader B.S. Yeddyurappa was preparing to stake claim to form the government, a senior BJP functionary called up Kumaraswamy to offer him chief ministership.
But it was too late by then, according to JD(S) leaders privy to the deliberations.
Gowda, who has been avowedly anti-BJP, recently appreciated Modi’s persuasive skills, to which he attributed his continuance in the Lok Sabha. For a leader who became the Prime Minister of India in 1996 with a flock of 16 MPs from Karnataka in a bloc of 46 Janata Dal MPs, talks of a mahagatbandhan are sure to warm the cockles of his heart.
It was he who made telephone calls to bring leaders such as Arvind Kejriwal, Chandrababu Naidu, Mamata Banerjee and half-a-dozen others to share the stage with Sonia Gandhi at Kumaraswamy’s swearing-in ceremony.
But his yoga asanas Thursday are likely to keep the Congress on edge, and the BJP hopeful and interested.
Nitish is no less an achiever. A Kurmi, a community that constitutes barely 4 per cent of Bihar’s population, Kumar has been in power either at the Centre or in the state for the past two decades, thanks mainly to his shifty political allegiance. After leading a mahagatbandhan to rout the BJP in the 2015 Bihar assembly elections, he deserted the Congress and the RJD last year to join hands with Modi, with whom he was once averse to even dining.
The JD (U) is part of the NDA now, but the BJP’s ambition in Bihar is now troubling Nitish, who can see the writing on the wall. If Modi returns to power in 2019, the BJP is likely to go for the jugular in Bihar. With his limited support base, he knows he is dispensable. Nitish is, therefore, trying to cosy up to his old allies.
Earlier this month, Lalu Yadav called up former JD(U) chief Sharad Yadav to inform him about a visit paid by a former aide of Nitish while the RJD chief was in Mumbai. A leader privy to their conversation said Lalu apprised Sharad of Nitish’s wish to revive the mahagatbandhan. The two leaders laughed at the proposition, leaving it to Tejashwi Yadav, Lalu’s son, to declare later that there was no question of an alliance with Nitish Kumar.
Well-informed JD (U) leaders claim that Nitish himself is not serious about reviving the mahagatbandhan as Lalu won’t accept him as the chief ministerial candidate in the 2020 assembly elections. The Bihar chief minister would like the BJP to consider holding the assembly polls simultaneously with 2019 Lok Sabha elections under his leadership. That will secure Nitish’s chief ministership for five more years.
The BJP has different plans for Bihar, though. And that explains the Bihar chief minister’s move to distance himself from the yoga event and overtures to old allies.
There is also an immediate context to Gowda’s and Nitish’s posturing. It comes at a time when both are looking to increase their tallies in the Lok Sabha — the more the numbers, the better their bargaining powers in the event of a fractured verdict in 2019. For this to happen, they need to contest on more seats. But their alliance partners may not be willing to part with more. The JD(S) won just two of the 28 seats in Karnataka and the JD(U) two of the 40 in Bihar in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. This also explains the contrasting images in Bengaluru and Patna on Yoga Day.
The mahagatbandhan may remain a non-starter, but the idea certainly has its utility. There are many Gowdas and Nitishes in the opposition camp swearing by this idea today.