Bypoll: How Nitish Kumar's Modi rant boomeranged on him

The persona of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi had no role to play in the final outcome of Maharajganj bypoll in Bihar. He neither did go to the state nor did he utter a word on the election and nor was there any presence of Gujaratis in the constituency. Yet his name did play a role in this by-election, which ironically ended in a victory of the Lalu Prasad Yadav-led Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) candidate and the defeat of the JD(U) or NDA candidate.

The implication of this single bypoll is significant in the context of the BJP-JD(U) equation for two reasons: the Modi factor and the massive defeat margin - 1,30 lakh - of the NDA, read JD(U), candidate in a rather low turnout election.

Modi has trumped Nitish Kumar even without setting foot in Bihar. AFP.

Modi has trumped Nitish Kumar even without setting foot in Bihar. AFP.

The NDA voters, particularly from the backward castes, did not come out to vote. Observers say this had to do with Nitish's strident opposition to Modi, an OBC. The voters felt the former was trying to obstruct an OBC's rise to the prime ministerial position. A substantive section of upper caste voters, including those from NDA candidate PK Shahi's caste, were annoyed with Nitish's anti-Modi barbs and wanted to ring that warning bell.

Almost all leaders from the BJP in Bihar are privately rejoicing the defeat of the JD(U) although in public they say it is the ruling coalition's defeat. The news of the defeat has been some kind of a balm to their egos bruised by the repeated assault on Narendra Modi by Nitish. At the moment many among them don't mind sacrificing their share in power in Bihar and go solo in next parliamentary elections. But they want the JD(U) to pull the plug, so that they could play the victim.

The JD(U) wants the reverse to be played out. The Bihar chief minister had earlier spelt out his conditionality on Modi and given a deadline of December for the BJP to decide on the NDA's prime minister candidate.

The big question now is will Nitish Kumar sever ties with the BJP if the BJP declares Modi as the campaign committee chief for 2014 parliamentary polls (this is an indirect prime ministerial projection) at its Goa National Executive over this weekend or afterwards. Lalu Yadav is already taunting him on that count. Neither Nitish nor the JD(U) are expected to make any knee jerk reaction to that but a number of leaders confirmed that the next natural step of the BJP or Modi to campaign in Bihar would lead to taking the existing strain to the breaking point, unless of course, the JD(U) reviews its position in the light of Maharajganj verdict.

Take what BJP general secretary Rajiv Pratap Rudi said in Patna: "Modi is required by the JD(U) as much the BJP if the NDA seeks to improve prospects in the general elections. That's the message of Maharjganj. Modi and any other NDA chief minister should campaign in any state if their services are required to tilt the scale in favour of the NDA candidates in the general elections."

In his first reaction, Nitish played down the significance of Maharajganj result. He even differed from his party candidate and HRD minister PK Shahi's shifting the blame on the BJP. "Our alliance is intact. Members of the coalition worked together in the Maharajganj by-election. The seat was with the RJD which they have retained. There is nothing for them to go euphoric about it," he said.

But beneath Nitish's and JD(U)'s outward calm, there's a great deal of tension brewing. Party leaders are closely watching every move that the BJP is making, particularly those relating to Modi. They are debating how to react when Modi as BJP's campaign Committee chief insists on coming to Bihar for campaign. Unlike the previous assembly elections when the BJP had capitulated, this time around the party is unlikely to yield on its undeclared prime ministerial candidate being barred from going to a particular state under pressure from an ally. Given Nitish public statements and posturings he is bound to resist that and that could make the alliance reach the break point.

JD(U) MP and the face of backward Muslims in the party, Ali Anwar, told Firstpost, "Whether or not Modi is made chairman of the campaign committee for 2014 parliamentary polls is an internal matter of the BJP. There is an understanding in both the parties that he would not be required for campaigning in Bihar but if he or the BJP will insist on his coming to Bihar to campaign then problems would naturally arise. It is a different matter what he speaks in public rallies but for us it's also a matter of principle as also of a fact that many in the society feel uncomfortable by his presence."

Giriraj Singh, a vocal Bihar BJP leader and a minister in the state government has a quick rebuttal to that. He blamed Nitish's consistent anti-Modi barbs for the Maharajganj debacle. "I have maintained that this is no RJD victory but it is the defeat of the NDA. We, particularly the chief minister, need to introspect about the reasons why it happened. He heads the NDA in the state." Giriraj's vocal outbursts is privately shared by many in the state BJP and they hope against hope that Nitish would review his anti-Modi positioning, else they don't mind turning into rivals in coming parliamentary elections.

Their morale has further been boosted by Gujarat bypoll results where BJP snatched all six - four assembly and two parliamentary - seats from Congress. The Congress rather pathetic performance except for one assembly seat in Maharastra has made them feel that Nitish would be wary tying up with the Congress at this juncture.

Modi has arrived in Bihar in twin avtars, as an OBC and as a strong development oriented leader without even physically showing up there.