Patna: On a day that saw almost all political parties in India, including the Congress, jump onto the Ram Mandir bandwagon, with a number of leaders tweeting paeans to the proposed temple in Ayodhya, one party, that too an ally of the ruling BJP, remained indifferent to all the brouhaha over the bhoomi pujan (ground-breaking) ceremony.
While Prime Minister Narendra Modi helmed the ceremony in Ayodhya Wednesday, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar hopped onto a helicopter and landed in Darbhanga to inspect a relief camp and community kitchen. It was his first tour, outside of Patna, after being taunted by the opposition for not having ventured out of his residence for over 100 days even as the state reels under Covid-19 and floods.
The chief minister remained silent on the Ayodhya ceremony, neither posting anything on social media, nor offering a sound byte on it.
Nitish tweeted four times Wednesday, with one of his tweets thanking the Modi government for accepting the state government’s recommendation of a CBI probe into the death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput.
The chief minister’s silence appears to have rubbed off on his JD(U) colleagues as none of the party’s spokespersons or leaders, barring Water Resources Minister Sanjay Kumar Jha, made a mention of the Ram Temple bhoomi pujan.
“Sita and Ram reside in the hearts of every resident in Mithila,” Jha posted. Mithila, a region in Bihar, is said to be the birthplace of Sita.
हमें विश्वास है, अयोध्या में लंबे विवाद के बाद बनने जा रहा राम मंदिर शांति व सौहार्द की सद्भावना को समृद्ध करने तथा रामकथा के आदर्शों के प्रति जन-जन को प्रेरित करने का सशक्त माध्यम बनेगा।
सीता-राम मिथिलावासियों के रोम-रोम में बसते हैं।
— Sanjay Kumar Jha (@SanjayJhaBihar) August 5, 2020
Though Jha is close to the chief minister, he is not considered high in the party hierarchy.
“I don’t know what others do or do not do. But the priority of our chief minister is the people of the state,” JD(U) minister Shyam Rajak explained the silence to ThePrint.
“He went to Darbhanga to see the situation flood victims are in. The state right now is battling floods and Covid.”
Sources in the Bihar BJP said the party is miffed but publicly it is playing it safe. “We do not know if Nitishji made a statement or not. But we do recall that when the Supreme Court gave its verdict, he welcomed it,” BJP spokesperson Rajni Ranjan Patel said.
A complex relationship
The Bihar chief minister’s silence could be a result of his complex relationship with the state’s Muslims, who make up 16 per cent of the population.
Ever since Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) chief and former chief minister Lalu Prasad stopped L.K. Advani’s Rath Yatra in Bihar and had him arrested in 1990, Muslims have steadfastly supported the RJD.
Ever since Nitish assumed power, he has made efforts to wean away Muslims from Lalu through schemes such as building walls around graveyards, skill development for Muslim girls and scholarships for Muslim students. He did succeed partially in the 2010 assembly when a section of Muslims voted for the NDA despite the presence of the BJP in the alliance.
When he split from the BJP in 2013, ahead of the Lok Sabha elections the following year, Nitish had hoped that Muslims would vote for his party in the Parliamentary elections, but they stayed with Lalu as Modi’s BJP swept the state.
That has not deterred the chief minister. Ever since he returned to the NDA fold in 2017, Nitish has taken great pains to retain his secular credentials.
Communalism is among the three Cs — the other two being crime and corruption — that he keeps on repeating that he will not compromise on.
For instance, during communal clashes at Bhagalpur on the occasion of Ram Navami, the chief minister came down heavily, ensuring the arrest of Arijit Shashwat, the son of Union minister Ashwini Choubey.
The chief minister even got BJP MLAs to vote for an assembly resolution against the National Register of Citizens (NRC).
Muslim votes, however, still continued to elude him.
“Nitishji knows that he will not get Muslim votes as long as he is with the BJP. But he still does not want the Muslims to be aggressive against JD(U) candidates in the assembly polls. That is why he stayed away from bhoomi pujan celebrations,” said a JD(U) leader who did not wish to be identified.
The opposition, however, is mocking the chief minister’s stance on the issue. “It hardly matters if he tweeted or did not. When the BJP-JD(U) alliance was formed in 1996, the saffron party decided to keep the issues like Ram Janmabhoomi, Article 370 and Uniform Civil Code in cold storage,” said RJD leader Shivanand Tiwari.
“The then NDA government ran under a common minimum program. In this central government, the BJP is in absolute majority. Nitish Kumar can only provide token resistance like he did in the case of triple talaq and Article 370 when his MPs walked out when it was time to vote on those bills. Muslims know that.”
Former MLA and a member of Pappu Yadav‘s Jan Adhikar Party, Akhlaq Ahmed, said Muslims are confused by the Congress’ stand on the Ram Temple but will still not vote for Nitish.
“For Muslims, it is a choice between an evil and a lesser evil,” Ahmed said. “Nitish Kumar has to keep two faces — one his secular face and the other face he has to remain with the BJP and has no other choice. Although the Muslims are taken aback by the sudden U-turn by the Congress, Nitish Kumar under the present circumstances will not be their choice.”
He added that there is skepticism among Muslims over whether Nitish will be allowed to remain the CM even if the NDA wins the assembly polls.