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Pranab sidesteps Modi rally controversy, BJP cheers, JD(U) grumbles

The BJP has a reason to cheer. President Pranab Mukherjee has steered clear of the Narendra Modi versus Nitish Kumar’s game of political brinkmanship. He has decided to cut short his Patna trip, from two days to one. He will also make it as short as possible -- land at the airport, drive straight to the Ravindra Bhawan where the IIT-Patna convocation is to held and then drive back to the airport to catch his special Indian Air Force flight to return to Delhi. At least that's what BJP spokesperson Syed Shahnawaz Hussain, along with his party colleague Rajiv Pratap Rudy, claimed after a meeting with the President.

President Pranab Mukherjee’s two-day Bihar visit on 26-27 October was otherwise clashing with Narendra Modi’s much hyped Hunkar rally in Patna on 27 OCtober. Earlier the President was to stay in Patna on 26 October and  travel to Chandwa village, in Ara district, 50 kilometers from Patna,the following day to unveil a statue of Babu Jagjivan Ram, father of Speaker Meira Kumar. He was to return to Delhi around noon. Besides the security paraphernalia of barricading and other traffic restrictions, a Presidential protocol (blocking the airspace around the designated time) would require that Modi lands in Patna only after President leaves.

Modi-baton-PTI

The BJP says the President agreed to shorten his tour. PTI

After getting the President to revise his tour plan, Shahnawaz Hussain sounded elated but chose his words carefully: “We didn’t want that any inconvenience caused to the President because of the movement of a virtual sea of humans. He is respected to us and to the nation. He has kindly consented to shorten his tour programme.. Bihar will have privilege of hosting the President on Day one, October 26 and will have privilege of hosting the Prime Minister-in-the-making Narendra Modi on day two, October 27.”

The JD(U) is naturally unhappy with the development. It didn’t like the manner in which its arch political rival BJP literally forced the President to cut short his visit to the state, which otherwise would have given some mileage and matching media space to the state function.

JD(U) MP Ali Anwar said, “All controversy regarding the matter should rest if the President has agreed to revise his tour schedule. To begin with the state government had nothing to do with the dates, the BJP was unnecessarily trying to make political capital out of it. In any case, Narendra Modi and controversies go together.”

While the Bihar BJP had been planning it for long, since April this year, and confirmed it in June, Modi will address his first ever rally in Patna in Gandhi Maidan, appropriately named the Hunkar (bugle) to challenge Nitish Kumar on his home turf. The JD(U) leader had put in his veto, disallowing Modi from visiting Bihar for any public rally in the last eight years when the JD (U) was an NDA ally. Nitish had even declined send a dinner invite to Modi during the BJP national Executive meet in Patna in June 2010 and had also returned Gujarat government's Kosi flood relief donations in 2008. Modi and the BJP then swallowed these bitter pills as a necessity in an alliance. It's time for the state BJP leaders to even scores with Nitish.

As for the Hunkar rally, the BJP has planned to make it big, bigger than Lalu Prasad Yadav’s once awe-inspiring Garib Raila. Of a magnitude that Patna, capital of Bihar, has not seen since the peak of the JP movement in 1977.

But last week the BJP leaders realized that a Presidential twist, conscious or coincidental on part of those who invited the President to Bihar on these dates, might hurt the BJP’s rally preparedness. As the BJP leaders objected, President Mukherjee was then abroad, on a two-nation visit to Turkey and Belgium. Deputy chief minister Sushil Modi’s idea was to up the ante in such a manner that the President rethinks his Bihar tour programme. The BJP leader claimed that the President was misled by the Bihar government and not briefed properly by his officials.

Tweets, press conferences and an open letter kept the issue alive and controversial, so much so that Nitish Kumar had to clarify that the Bihar government had nothing to do with the dates of the President’s two-day visit. Sushil Modi’s plea was that a nervous Nitish Kumar was indulging in petty politics to create roadblocks, if not fully obstruct Narendra Modi‘s rally. The JD(U) had not taken it lying down and was asking whether Narendra Modi’s arrival in a city implies that no one, not even the President of India, be allowed to land in the same city and honour a state function.

The quantum of success of Modi’s Hunkar rally will guide the BJP’s future electoral strategy in Bihar. If it’s a success the way BJP wants it to be then it may even set into motion, a process of a new kind of social engineering.

The emerging political situation in Bihar has become more direct and exciting between JD (U) and BJP after Lalu Yadav’s conviction in the fodder scam. Bereft of the presence of its supreme leader amid elections, the RJD’s only hope in Bihar is a sympathy wave. Modi’s rivals JD(U) and RJD are therefore keeping a close eye on events unfolding in the BJP and would watch with great curiosity to see what happens in Gandhi Maidan on 27 October. For both Nitish and Modi, it’s about consolidating and expanding their existing social support and, should the RJD disintegrate in Lalu’s absence, to go for the Muslim-Yadav spoils. The Congress is inconsequential in Bihar if it fights alone but can be a force multiplier if it aligns with Nitish or Lalu.

Though Modi has never held a public rally in Bihar, at least not in the last 12 years and never in the historic Gandhi maidan, he is still the most talked about leader in all parts of the state, the denials from his rivals notwithstanding. His name got even greater currency and helped consolidation of upper caste votes in favour of his party after Nitish Kumar terminated a 17-year-old mutually beneficial relationship with the BJP because of Modi’s elevation as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate.