Nine days before the first phase of polling in Bihar, voters must be scratching their heads. And so must chief minister Nitish Kumar. They know who is inside Chirag Paswan’s Hanuman-like heart — Narendra Modi. But what they don’t know is what’s really inside his head. Who is Chirag Paswan? Prime Minister Modi’s self-proclaimed ‘Hanuman’ or a liar who is spreading ‘confusion’ about his relations with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)?
Chirag, late Ram Vilas Paswan’s son and the president of Lok Janshakti Party (LJP), is ready to rip his heart open to show Modi resides there. BJP leaders such as Bhupendra Yadav and Prakash Javadekar would, however, have us believe that the young Dalit leader is a ‘vote-katwa (vote-cutter)’ and is ‘lying’. It’s his word against theirs.
Chirag was always his father’s son. “He would never go against my wish,” the doting father once told this writer. And the senior Paswan, the founder of LJP, didn’t wish — or didn’t give any inkling — to quit the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). If he conveyed something else to his son, we don’t know. For his part, Modi couldn’t have wished for a more compliant and ideal ally and minister in his cabinet.
All’s not well for Chirag
There was a time when Ram Vilas Paswan, as a cabinet minister in the Manmohan Singh government, would hold darbars with reporters after every cabinet meeting. Once he started attending Modi cabinet meetings, he shrugged off all their queries: “Kya kehte hain ki kaise bhi puchh lijiye, koi faayda nahin. Aapko pata hai, sab confidential hota hai (whichever way you ask, it’ll be of no avail. You know these things are confidential).”
He was also someone who was vocal on Dalit issues. But when there were controversies over incidents of atrocities against Dalits in BJP-ruled states, the Dalit leader would prefer to talk about his ministry’s works.
So, how was it that the same father chose to look the other way as Chirag started embarrassing the NDA government in Bihar, with frequent criticism of Nitish Kumar? The sniping against the CM that started from March ended up with Chirag walking out of the NDA to fight against Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) in the upcoming assembly election. Given that a section of Bihar BJP leaders had been advocating ekla chalo, citing Kumar’s unpopularity and Modi’s popularity, Chirag’s move was construed in political circles as a probable BJP ploy to weaken Kumar by bringing down the JD(U)’s tally in the assembly and push him out of the CM’s chair at an opportune time.
As this theory was gaining currency and starting to affect BJP-JD(U) coordination on the ground, BJP leaders have gone on an overdrive to rebut all conspiracy angles. Chirag Paswan is suddenly made to look like an impulsive man with Macbeth-like vaulting ambitions.
There are, however, three reasons why the BJP’s attempts to distance itself from Chirag leave more questions than answers.
Amit Shah’s clarity
The first came in an interview that Union Home Minister and the BJP’s chief strategist Amit Shah gave to News18 Network on Saturday. He dwelt at length about how the BJP and the LJP had several rounds of negotiations about seat-sharing arrangement but couldn’t reach a consensus. There were earlier reports that the LJP wanted 36 seats but the BJP wasn’t ready to partake with more than 20.
When Shah was asked whether there was a possibility of Chirag returning to the alliance (NDA), he replied, “We will see what the situation is after the elections. Currently, we are strongly fighting against one another…” The interviewer sought clarity, asking whether he was suggesting the possibility of Chirag returning to the fold. Shah replied, “I have not said that. What I am saying is we will see what the situation is post-elections…”
So, what exactly did Shah mean? Read his remarks more than once—just to be doubly sure. The BJP leadership is not ruling out Chirag Paswan’s return to the NDA after the elections. (And if it happens, he may hope to get a ministry, too, if not a cabinet portfolio that his late father held.)
When was the last time you found the BJP so generous and forgiving vis-à-vis a political party or leader (Chirag, in this case) who is hell-bent on damaging the NDA’s electoral prospects in Bihar?
Shah asserted that there were no ifs or buts about Nitish Kumar becoming the CM again. There was no ambiguity on that, anyway. Shah and other BJP leaders have been repeatedly saying so. What they haven’t said is that Kumar will be the CM for the full five-year term.
The second reason the BJP’s explanations about Chirag Paswan and its chemistry and synergy with Nitish Kumar don’t wash so easily is the way the former is running its poll campaign. Kumar is known to put a premium on his secular image and has given JD(U) tickets to 11 Muslims this time. BJP leaders, however, seem keen on running a polarised campaign. Union minister Nityanand Rai was first off the blocks with “terrorists from Kashmir” remark. His senior ministerial colleague Giriraj Singh followed suit, bringing in Jinnah and Sharjeel Imam in the poll discourse. Jailed don Shahbuddin found mention in BJP president JP Nadda’s speech.
And it’s just the beginning. Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath is scheduled to address about one-and-a-half-dozen rallies in Bihar. Count on the sparks flying once he starts speaking.
Given the flak Adityanath government has received over atrocities against Dalits in UP and his Thakurvaadi image, Nitish Kumar must be getting jitters about his UP counterpart’s campaign. Around 40 per cent of the JD(U) candidates belong to Dalit and extremely backward class (EBC) categories. Adityanath’s campaign is, however, likely to boost the BJP’s prospects, given that 51 out of its 110 candidates belong to the upper castes.
Senior Paswan knew better
The third reason why the people are looking askance at the BJP’s attempt to disown Chirag Paswan is the fact that the LJP had no plausible reason to bolt out of the NDA in Bihar. Ram Vilas Paswan worked with six prime ministers over the last three decades. He was not called ‘mausam vaigyanik’ for no reason. Why would he decide to risk his cabinet berth at the Centre by imperilling the NDA’s prospects in Bihar? It would defy reason — unless, of course, one starts believing in the politically naïve explanation about Chirag, and not his father who passed away on 8 October, taking calls.
With his support base confined to Paswans, who constitute 5 per cent of Bihar’s population, the LJP leader must be mindful of the party’s consistent decline in Bihar assembly elections. The party secured 29 seats in February 2005 assembly election but its tally came down to 10 seats in the next assembly election in October that year, and fell to three and two seats in the 2010 and 2015 polls, respectively. Ram Vilas Paswan had to be expecting a sudden miracle in 2020 assembly polls to ask his son to go solo. The late Dalit leader was a dreamer, but certainly not a daydreamer. He was a true practitioner of realpolitik. He would know that Chirag needed more time to emerge as a leader of consequence in Bihar and would be better off under the protective care of Amit Shah & Co. Going solo at this stage would run the risk of jeopardising his political career.
And that’s why the more BJP leaders try to distance themselves from Chirag Paswan, the more questions arise. In coming days, Modi and Nitish Kumar would be sharing dais in several poll rallies and that’s expected to clear all confusion among BJP-JD(U) cadres and voters. They will be all ears about what the PM has to say about Chirag Paswan, if at all.
Views are personal.