Is Nitish dragging Pranab into his war with Narendra Modi?

It’s an all out NaMo versus NiKu war. And it's one that has an unprecedented twist with President Pranab Mukherjee's name dragged into it, consciously or coincidentally.

First, the facts. It has been known for months, confirmed in June in fact, that Narendra Modi will address his first ever rally in Patna in Gandhi Maidan on 27 October, appropriately named the Hunkar (bugle) rally to challenge Nitish Kumar on his home turf. 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.

 Is Nitish dragging Pranab into his war with Narendra Modi?

Modi will address a huge rally in Patna on Oct 27. AFP

On Thursday, last week, Bihar BJP leaders heard that President Pranab Mukherjee was coming to Bihar around the time that Modi’s rally is to take place but could a get confirmation from senior state officials only on Saturday evening. The two-day tour of the President to grace the IIT Patna convocation ceremony on 26 October and unveiling of a statue of Babu Jagjivan Ram, father of Speaker Meira Kumar, in Chandwa village, in Ara district, 50 kilometers from Patna, on 27 October has made the BJP cry foul and claim that a nervous Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar was indulging in petty politics to create roadblocks, if not fully obstruct Narendra Modi's rally.

If BJP leader and former Deputy Chief Minister of Bihar Sushil Modi upped the ante with a series of tweets on Sunday, the JD(U) is not taking it lying down either and is 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 only because of Modi’s elevation as the BJP's prime ministerial candidate.

BJP leaders thus allege that inviting the President on the same day to Bihar is part of political scheming by Nitish and his friends in the Congress. Sushil Modi says, “Nitish Kumar is playing all tricks to put hurdles in success of NaMo 's Hunkar Rally on 27th Oct.. First they tried to obstruct by allocating only half of Gandhi Maidan and when we foiled that they have come out with this”.

Firstpost spoke to Sushil Modi and a close confidante of Nitish Kumar who requested anonymity. Bother argued bitterly against each other.

First, the JD(U) leader charged that it was yet another trick of the BJP to keep public and media sensitivity alive on the Modi rally, which was not being talked about so much in the state. The BJP counter-charged that Nitish’s purpose of inviting the President on the same date was angled at acquiring some degree of media space and popular mindspace on days when it would otherwise be Modi and Modi all along.

Second, the JD(U) leader claimed that the Nitish government had nothing to do with organizing the President’s programme on those dates because IIT-Patna was under the Union HRD ministry and as such a Central issue. So was the other function in Ara, organized by Speaker Meira Kumar who took the consent of President Pranab Mukherjee to visit the state on a date that coincidentally clashed with Modi’s rally. The BJP's counter to that is that the President’s visit is never finalized without a due consultation process with and prior consent of the state concerned, and Nitish always knew that Modi’s Hunkar rally was to take place on 27 October.

Third, JD(U) charged that Sushil Modi’s “outbursts” reflected the BJP’s mindset. How could they stop anyone, least of all the President of India, to visit the state just because Modi was to address a public rally in same state on that day? Should Patna and Bihar come a standstill because Modi is visiting for a few hours?

The real contention between Nitish and Modi’s protagonists lies here.

The BJP says that if a rally of this magnitude (five lakh expected in 11 special trains, three thousand to four thousand MUVs and buses) is to be held on 27 October, people would start coming from October 26. Incidentally, President Pranab Mukherjee’s programme is at Ravindra Bhawan, on Bir Chand Patel Path. The BJP’s party office is on the same road, and is in close proximity to Ravindra Bhawan. As such the party office would be the hub of all activity on that date. But since the President is coming there late afternoon, barricading has to be erected  from the airport to the Governor’s House including along Bir Chand Patel Path. Along this route are official residential quarters of some leaders, including those of the BJP, where a section of those coming for the rally would be staying.

Again the next day, while President would take a helicopter to fly to Ara and return, the area around the airport would be sanitised till afternoon. The airspace too could be blocked for some time. That could make Modi alter his landing time in Patna. The BJP’s argument is that since vehicles coming from various parts of the state for the rally will be stopped in the outskirts of the city and those coming from central Bihar districts are usually parked in an area close to the airport, the Presidential protocol would create grave obstructions.

The BJP is so far maintaining that Nitish and the Congress have played mischief with the President and are trying to use the Head of the Nation as some kind of political shield against a major Modi sway. Besides Sushil Modi's tweeting, the party is also collecting signatures from public urging him not to get dragged into an electoral war of two rival political groups. A state BJP delegation may even meet the President on his return from his ongoing two-nation tour abroad.

Whatever the outcome, the BJP has got a juicy talking point against Nitish, much before Modi can thunder in Bihar. The JD(U) is equally happy that via the President’s proposed visit, they have already scored a political brownie point and made BJP cry foul. The two rallies on October 19 in Kanpur in UP and October 27 in Patna, Bihar will shape the intensity of the Modi wave, if it is there. These two states will be critical for all parties, with a combined tally of 120 seats, one fifth of the total strength of Lok Sabha.

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Updated Date: Oct 07, 2013 15:42:57 IST