The Loneliness of Sushil Kumar Modi

Sushil Kumar Modi, part of the BJP's old guard, stands isolated among the adherents of the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah brand of politics that has overtaken the Bihar party unit.

Patna: Nitish Kumar is ‘bitter’ and lonely. Sushil Kumar Modi is ‘isolated’ and lonely. ‘Loneliness’ is the common thread that binds the Bihar chief minister and his ‘trusted’ deputy from the BJP, who have worked shoulder to shoulder through the NDA rule in the state.

It is for the first time in the over four decades of his political career that Nitish has apparently lost his cool – he has repeatedly made personal attacks on his rival and the mahagathbandhan’s chief ministerial candidate, Tejaswhi Yadav, and has even expressed his displeasure at voters for raising slogans against him at his election rallies.

The JD(U) and the BJP are equal partners in the National Democratic Alliance that has projected Nitish as its chief ministerial candidate again. But more than the RJD-JD(U)-Congress mahagathbandhan, the BJP cadres and leaders are “silently” enjoying Nitish’s frustration – rooted in Tejaswhi’s surge on the promise of 10 lakh jobs and bolstered by Chirag Paswan’s bellicose drive to defeat the CM.

The lone BJP leader who has been openly attacking Paswan, dismissing LJP’s existence and pillorying Tejaswhi on the possible return of ‘Jungle Raj’ is Sushil Modi. Sushil, in a sense, is isolated among the “adherents” of the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah brand of politics that has overtaken the Bihar BJP.

Stung by COVID-19, Sushil is convalescing in a hospital for a week. He is expected to return to the campaigning trail in a week or so and is also expected to resume his tirade against Tejaswhi and Chirag. But again, he will be “alone” in singing the tune that soothes the ears of “lonely” Nitish.

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In fact, Sushil Modi’s loneliness is rooted to the manner he worked in to carry on with the complex JD(U)-BJP alliance over the years vis a vis the rise of the Modi-Shah brand that has taken over the BJP from its old guard – which Sushil actually belonged to.

Two to tango

Nitish emerged as the formidable CM of the NDA when it rose to power after the fall of the Lalu-Rabri regime in 2005. At that time, Narendra Modi – tainted by pogrom in Gujarat – was treated as an “illicit” element by all non-BJP parties and the liberal populace. Nitish was a member of A.B. Vaypayee’s cabinet when the Gujarat riots occurred and he communicated his “reservations” against the Gujarat chief minister to the prime minister. Vajpayee gave a “sermon” on rajdharma (kingship) to Modi, but didn’t go beyond that. But the ever ‘tactful’ Nitish decided to do away with Modi in his scheme of things.

It was BJP patriarch L.K. Advani who declared Nitish as the NDA chief minister at an election rally in Muzaffarpur in 2005. Nitish, in a quid pro quo, became “loyal” to Advani and Arun Jaitely. Advani-Jaitely chose Sushil Modi – the most apt representative of the Advani order in the Bihar BJP – as Nitish’s deputy.

Sushil and Nitish have had a long history of working together. Both politicians are the products of the historic Bihar movement led by Jayaparakash Narayan in 1970’s. While Sushil belonged to the ABVP, the students’ wing of the RSS, Nitish, a student of engineering at Bihar College of Engineering, was influenced by the socialism espoused by Jayaprakash Narayan and Ram Manohar Lohia.

After their initiation into political activism through the JP movement, they returned to the political philosophies of their roots – while Nitish got into the Janata Party, Lok Dal, Janata Dal, Sushil joined the BJP as he grew in age and experience.

Thus, Sushil, who knew Nitish and his politics well, was the most suited person to be his deputy. Moreover, the BJP was the junior partner of the JDU but Sushil was the most “trusted” leader of his party in Advani-Vajpayee era. Thus, Sushil equally suited both – Advani and Nitish.

A key link

Sushil as deputy to Nitish emerged as they “key link” between Nitish’s JD(U) and the BJP high command. Nitish, as part of his unwritten conditions, apprised Sushil how it was important not to allow even the shadow of Narendra Modi on Bihar, which had over 16% of the Muslim population and who, along with the OBCs, constituted the backbone of Lalu’s strength.

Since the BJP pushed Advani as prime minister after Vajpayee’s exit in 2004, he understood the importance of Nitish in Bihar – which sends 41 MPs to the Lok Sabha. The Advani-led BJP high command knew that Narendra Modi was “deleterious” to NDA’s health in Bihar and as such, Sushil did his best to strengthen the NDA in the interest of his party.

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But by 2009, Narendra Modi had begun forcing his way in the BJP. He craved stepping out from Gujarat and making inroads in the BJP’s old order. Sushil was doing tight rope walking with his BJP and Nitish to keep the NDA – minus Narendra Modi’s influence – afloat in Bihar. It all changed on May 10, 2009.

The NDA, pushing Advani as prime minister, organised its biggest show of strength in Ludhiana, inviting all the NDA CMs including K. Chandrashekhar Rao of Telangana Rastra Samiti, who had crossed over to the NDA from the UPA. In no way, the BJP could have avoided Gujarat CM’s presence. Nitish initially assigned JD(U) president Sharad Yadav to attend it. But Advani made a request to Nitish through Sushil and Jaitely.

In keeping with Advani’s “personal request”, Nitish went to Chandigarh in a chartered flight and straightway drove to the venue of the rally. But as Nitish stepped onto the dais, Narendra Modi moved from his seat from the other end, caught Nitish’s hand and held the clutched palms aloft for the crowd to see and cameramen to click.

The picture of Narendra Modi and Nitish Kumar from the 2009 rally. Photo: File photo

Nitish returned to Patna. He was livid to see the newspapers carrying the picture. “Message bahut kharab gaya hai (very bad message has gone)”, he communicated to Sushil Modi. Sushil understood it and “rightly” communicated Nitish’s displeasure to the BJP high command. But the development irked a small section of the Bihar BJP leaders. To the chagrin of Nitish, Girajraj Singh, Rameshwar Chourasia and Nitin Navin began praising Narendra Modi off and on. This small “coterie” wished to raise its stock in the eyes of Narendra Modi – battling to force his way in the RSS-BJP. Sushil rode roughshod on Modi’s “loyalists” in Bihar in the “interest” of the NDA’s unity.

The BJP organised its national executive meeting at Patna in June 2010, which Sushil Modi privately opposed with his command in keeping with Nitish’s concerns. But the pro-Narendra Modi MPs and MLAs – though small in number in Bihar – supported the party’s function, five months ahead of the assembly elections in Bihar.

Against Nitish-Sushil’s wishes, this lobby wanted Narendra Modi’s presence in the Bihar polls. Modi had come to Patna for the first time in many years. Nitish, who was on a vikas yatra in north Bihar when the BJP session began, invited BJP leaders for a dinner the next day. He thought that Narendra Modi, who was among many BJP leaders, would keep a low profile in keeping with the NDA’s strategy in Bihar. But on the morning of the dinner, two newspapers brought out a full page advertisement showing the same Ludhiana picture of Modi and Nitish with the subtext of Modi’s donation of Rs 5 crore to flood victims in Bihar.

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Nitish was furious and immediately communicated to Sushil that he had cancelled the dinner. Sushil was not surprised for he knew it was coming. He communicated Nitish’s decision to his party leaders. The decision, apparently, didn’t irk Advani. But Narendra Modi used the rally at the Gandhi Maidan, Patna on the concluding day of the session to attack Nitish: “Aap log gaddhe main hain, Gujarat aa kar dekhiye vikas kya hota hai (You people are in ditch. Come to Gujarat to see what development is all about)”. Modi’s supporters in Bihar BJP began quoting Narendra Modi and embarrassing Nitish.

But Sushil stood with Nitish. Luckily for him, Narendra Modi retained as the Gujarat CM for third terms in 2012 and roped in the Mohan Bhagwat-led RSS to make inroads in Advani’s fort. The Manmohan Singh-led UPA had defeated the BJP in 2009, diminishing Advani’s clout. In a fast turn of events, many members of the erstwhile Advani lobby, including Arun Jaitely, shifted their loyalty to Narendra Modi.

A question of loyalty

Nitish Kumar and Sushil Kumar Modi. Credit: PTI

Nitish Kumar and Sushil Kumar Modi. Credit: PTI

At this stage, Sushil, in an interview to me for The Telegraph, said, “Nitish was prime minister material.”

The supporters of Narendra Modi got angry with Sushil. But Sushil emphasised at a closed door meeting of his party about the importance of accommodating Nitish’s concerns in the interest of NDA’s health. Nitish too persuaded Sushil to “silence” Narendra Modi’s supporters and lobbied with Murli Manohar Joshi and others against the Gujarat CM.

By 2013, Narendra Modi had prevailed in his party and Advani was getting sidelined with each passing day. Sushil failed to secure a promise from the BJP to keep Narendra Modi out of Bihar. Nitish had a meeting with then BJP president Nitin Gadkari who assured hime, “The BJP will decide on NDA’s PM candidate only after consulting him (Nitish)”.

But when Rajnath Singh took over as the BJP chief, he helped Narendra Modi become the BJP’s campaign committee chairman at its Goa convention in June 2013. Nitish, sensing that Narendra Modi had replaced the Advani-led order, dumped it on June 16, 2013.

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Sushil stayed back in the BJP saying, “Main jeevan ke prarambh se hi BJP ka sipahi hoon. BJP se meri lash hi jayegi. Gadhbandhan dharma ka palan humn-e imandari se kiya hai (I have been in the BJP from the beginning of my life. My body will go from the BJP. I have tried my best to keep the dharma of alliance)”

Concomitant with the rise of Narendra Modi, the number of his supporters too grew in Bihar. The NDA won 32 Lok Sabha seats in Bihar, reducing the JD(U) to two. Nitish tied the knot with the Lalu Prasad led RJD-JD(U)-Congress Grand Alliance, retaining the chief ministership in the 2015 elections. On the other hand, Bihar witnessed the upsurge of new generation leaders loyal to Narendra Modi-Amit Shah’s brand of politics. Now, the union minister of state for home, Nityanand Rai has become to Modi-Shah what Sushil Modi was to Vajpayee-Advani.

Nitish has returned to the BJP in its new avatar. Sushil, though deputy to Nitish, has little connect with Narendra Modi-Amit Shah who are more comfortable with the new generation leaders in the state.

Sushil is forlorn in two ways. One, he can’t connect with the aggressive Hindutva brand that Narendra-Modi-Amit Shah espouses. Two, Nitish stands diminished in his clout and the new BJP has launched a proxy war on Nitish through Chirag. Married to a Malayali Christian, Sushil has seldom resorted anti-minority rhetoric in over three decades of political life. Suave and soft-spoken Sushil, who got his initial training under the JP movement is apparently not in sync with the laboratory of Hindutva in Gujarat that produced Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. And that’s the reason for his loneliness.

It is not that Sushil had the best of chemistry with Nitish initially. Nitish replaced Sushil as the Leader of Opposition with Upendra Kushwaha when the Samata Party and Janata Dal (United) merged in 2002 with Sharad Yadav replacing George Fernandes as the JD(U) president. They developed a working chemistry only after Nitish-led NDA came to power in 2005 and worked in unison to strengthen the NDA in the Advani-led order which Narendra Modi-Amit Shah overtook in 2014.

Nalin Verma is a senior journalist and author of the Gopalganj to Raisina—My Political Journey, Lalu Prasad’s autobiography and The Greatest Folk Tales of Bihar.