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Bigger loser, larger winner
Nitish gain is Modi’s loss

Patna, Nov. 25: The tattered political remains of Lalu Prasad may be masking another, perhaps more consequential, victim of the bloodbath Nitish Kumar has wreaked on opponents: Gujarat chief minister and bęte noire Narendra Modi.

Nitish’s devastating conquest of Bihar has made this election more than merely about local rout and ravaging. Concealed in his stunning electoral thrust is a long-distance punch with long-term implications.

Quite suddenly, the man who resumes charge as chief minister of Bihar today has become the NDA’s tomorrow man, ahead of Modi as the alliance’s most acceptable face in the 2014 stakes. Currently in the throes of celebration, leaders of the JD(U) and the BJP alike are reluctant to speculate too far into the future.

Nitish himself is playing correctly coy on the issue, pleading to be spared the suggestion of prime ministerial ambitions on the grounds that he isn’t even “fit for the job”.

But few others are denying he has arrived at a critical high from where the top job could, theoretically, be just another leap.

A top Nitish adviser told The Telegraph amid the joyous formalities of his re-anointment as boss of the Bihar alliance: “Ab kaun rok raha hai Nitishji ko? Who’s to stop him now? He is of course focused on Bihar, but when it comes to a larger role, his claim in the NDA is unmatched. It is probably wrong to compare him with Vajpayeeji, but after him the NDA has not had a leader who is power-plus and image-plus. There is Nitish now.”

Posited with the Nitish-as-future-PM prospect several times over the last couple of days, the BJP’s artful strategist, Arun Jaitley, found it hard to put down the Bihar leader’s possible candidacy. It’s something he could easily have dismissed as hypothetical; he chose instead to state, without naming names, that he would be happy to have “any NDA leader” as future Prime Minister.

Is there an unstated admission here from Jaitley that Nitish has indeed forged forth as rival to Modi, whose case for prime ministership the BJP leader has often advocated? Nitish has made it tough for Jaitley, and the BJP, to preserve the exclusivity of Modi’s claim.

Indeed, the gaining sense of some in the party is that foregrounding Nitish might serve the NDA’s power ambitions in 2014 much more effectively than backing Modi.

As a Bihar BJP leader himself conceded: “It’s too early to talk about 2014, but as prospects go, Nitish’s arrival is dramatic. It is not merely about this overwhelming mandate, it is more about the all-round acceptability he has established now, rural poor and urban middle class, upper caste and extremely backward, Hindu and Muslim. This has not become a landslide out of nothing. Both Modi and Nitish are strong mass leaders with proven governance records, but Nitish’s across-the-board appeal gives him an edge.”

In short, Nitish has the potential to attract “secular” allies to the NDA and expand its voter base; Modi could potentially scare them away.

Too fine an examination of voting patterns hasn’t been possible yet, but it hasn’t required too much analysis in the BJP backrooms for leaders to be convinced they have swelled to an unexpected 91 in the Bihar Assembly mainly on account of Nitish’s multi-segment vote infusion. It’s unthinkable to the BJP that it has even grabbed seats where the Muslim vote was critical.

If the BJP needed any convincing that Nitish did indeed refract minority votes into its kitty, it came from Maulana Anisur Rehman, the Phulwari-based custodian of the Imarat-e-Sharia, an influential socio-religious body.

“What’s the harm in voting for a party that is committed to goals of peace and development?” Rehman said upon being asked if his community had endorsed BJP candidates.

“We are only opposed to a certain aspect of the BJP that is anti-Muslim in nature; if that is taken away, as it has been in Nitish Kumar’s Bihar, we will vote for them for a better and peaceful future. Our objection is to a certain thinking, not to a party; under Nitish the BJP has shown a new facet of itself.”

Implicit in Rehman’s argument is a message that the BJP might increasingly have to reckon with: part of the reason the party increased its vote share and seats is that Nitish firmly held off the likes of Modi and Varun Gandhi from the Bihar campaign.

That sent a signal to the minorities: the BJP does have its red-rag aspects, but Nitish wouldn’t allow them play. It has been a rough road managing this ticklish balance between the political compulsion of allying with the BJP and the electoral imperatives of wooing Bihar’s Muslims. But looking back, even BJP leaders concede it is Nitish’s “broad-based appeal” that has made the alliance tick.

Following the public and protracted Nitish-Modi row in July, it was BJP leaders like deputy chief minister Sushil Modi who took up cudgels with the leadership on behalf of Nitish, warning that the Bihar model of the NDA would collapse if Narendra Modi were allowed to have his way.

Is the Bihar model about to spill over and ripple beyond the state? Four years can be a millennium in politics, much can get drastically altered by 2014. But while it rejoices in the success of Bihar, the NDA is also seized by the urgency of what it perceives to be an opportunity: the scams spilling out of UPA II under the helpless watch of the Sonia-Manmohan diarchy.

Could this be the start of UPA II’s unravelling, could this create an opening for the NDA?

But even more, is the NDA up to the challenge, does it have the man who’d make its grab for power fulsome enough? That’s where Nitish Kumar must enter the NDA’s consciousness as someone who could.

So while Lalu Prasad has been rendered more wounds than he can lick at the moment, it could well be Narendra Modi who will take the harder knock from Nitish’s punch.

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