WE DON’T need a pollster to tell us that Narendra Modi is the most sought after leader on the campaign circuit. A pile of requests from the BJP and NDA candidates from Kashmir to Kerala and Kolkata to Kolhapur lie in the Gujarat chief minister’s residence and if he were to accept all of them, he would be addressing close to 500 rallies before the grueling campaign is through. But he has chosen to address only about 200 rallies, covering most of the big states.
Bihar, where a JD( U)- BJP coalition is in power, won’t be among them. Because Nitish Kumar doesn’t want him there. There could be two reasons for this: one, the affable but uninspiring Bihar chief minister may genuinely have apprehensions of being dwarfed by the charismatic Modi; equally plausible, he may want to insulate himself from all saffron affiliations in the hope of garnering some of the minority votes.
His advisers in the party, as also close friends in the BJP, have told him to keep equidistance from both the Congress and the BJP just to make sure he is seen as a shining 24- carat secularist. That’s why he publicly stated last week that he will not share the dais with the BJP’s most effective vote catcher. Instead, he is quietly lobbying with his friends in the BJP’s central office to invite him to campaign for its candidates.
Needless to say, in the event of these candidates winning, Nitish would want to hog all the credit. So keen is the man to sport his secular credentials on his sleeve that he was said to be reluctant to share the dais even with L. K. Advani, though last Friday, he finally relented and was seen on stage with the BJP’s prime minister- in- waiting.
Nitish is actually having his cake and eating it too. In public, he shuns the BJP, but in private drops by at the home of some of its second rung leaders for a meal while in Delhi. Some of the more hardcore Hindutva elements have told me in recent times that Nitish is as ungrateful and double- faced as one can get. In the immediate aftermath of Godhra, when Modi was the man that every secularist loved to hate, Nitish, as the- then railway minister, had shared the dais with Modi many times on his visits to Gujarat. As late as last August, after the Kosi floods submerged vast parts of Bihar, Modi was the first to respond to Nitish’s appeal for help.
He released Rs 10 crores from the Gujarat CM’s relief fund, sent 108 ambulances and asked his senior officials to camp in the affected areas and oversee the relief and rehabilitation opera- tions. Then, Nitish had publicly expressed gratitude for Modi’s humanitarian gestures. The grapevine has it that in this season of a prime ministerial bid that’s open to all, Nitish fancies his chances as much as the rustic Lalu Yadav or the cunning Ram Vilas Paswan. And his BJP friends have even assured him support in case the saffronites don’t become the single largest party.
We will know in just over a month if Nitish’s keep- Modi- out strategy yields the expected dividends. If it doesn’t happen, Nitish will live to regret for long. As will Naveen Patnaik in Orissa where, as I write this, Modi is said to be working his magic.