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Home truths of yatra flag-off

Patna, Oct. 29: There is a creeping sense in chief minister Nitish Kumar’s camp that flagging off BJP leader L.K. Advani’s yatra from Sitab Diara earlier this month was a critical error of judgement and will require damage-control, especially with the influential Muslim minority.

The chief minister’s decision gave Advani’s renewed political ambitions a high-profile mahurat clap but earned Nitish the dubious distinction of endorsing a man who had famously been arrested in Bihar for disrupting communal harmony with his Ram Rath Yatra in 1990. What hurt Nitish most was a pointed remark that squeezed the chief minister into an uneasy political spot.

“One chief minister got me arrested during my yatra and put me at Massanjore in Dumka district,” Advani gloated at the gathering. “Another has flagged off my yatra.”

That line with the reference to Lalu Prasad, Nitish aides believe, instantly disadvantaged the chief minister. “This is the first time in years that Nitish Kumar has been made to appear poorer in comparison to Lalu Prasad,” a Nitish confidant told The Telegraph. “Advani’s statement made it appear as if Nitish had gone out of his way to make amends for Lalu’s decision to arrest Advani, which is a total misrepresentation.”

He went on to say Nitish had “fully backed” Lalu Prasad’s decision to halt Advani’s 1990 yatra at Samastipur. “Both were in the same party. Nitish was then an intrinsic part of the Lalu think-tank, so to make it appear as if Nitish is undoing what Lalu had done is to send out an entirely false and motivated message,” he argued.

Nitish hasn’t spoken his mind on the issue, and is unlikely to in the larger interests of his alliance with the BJP. But that does not necessarily mean he harbours no regrets over his decision.

The Nitish camp has watched with palpable concern the manner in which the opposition, Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) in particular, has gleefully turned Advani’s statement into an instrument of attacking the chief minister.

“Laluji had arrested Advani because he posed a threat to the minorities, Nitish has patted on the same man from Bihar’s soil,” said Abdul Bari Siddiqui, leader of Opposition in the Assembly. “The minorities are a sensitive community, they are seeing this as a big let-down. How can a chief minister who launches Advani’s yatra have the confidence of the minorities?”

Siddiqui claimed that the “adverse impact” of Nitish’s move among minorities had become apparent in the recent byelection to the Doranda Assembly constituency.

Although the RJD lost the bout by more than 20,000 votes, Siddiqui said the contest had revealed signs of the “revival” of the RJD’s Muslim-Yadav votebank. “Muslims turned out in large numbers to vote against Nitish’s candidate,” Siddiqui said. “Nitish’s candidate won only because the entire party machinery was galvanised to secure a single seat, they were nervous about losing it.”

The Nitish camp strongly disagrees it was given a scare in Doranda, but senior JD(U) leaders admit privately that the feedback from minority circles following the start of the Advani yatra is a “matter of concern that will have to be strongly addressed”.

Referring to Nitish’s runaway victory in the 2010 elections, a senior party leader said: “Support from Muslims was a key factor in giving Nitish a landslide. It can be said now the Muslims did not like the chief minister flagging off Advani, they will have to be convinced anew about our secular credentials.”

Nitish is punctilious about his public image and his secular outlook is something he has diligently nursed over the years.

The open support he got from Muslims in the 2010 elections despite having the BJP as ally was a construct not merely of that image but of positive intent and delivery. Nitish’s chief ministership has seen a slew of minority welfare initiatives that have touched a whole range of aspects from graveyards and madarsas to the girl child and the elderly. But perhaps most important and emotive was his pursuit of justice in the Bhagalpur riots case which culminated in conviction of the guilty and compensation for victims.

The chief minister would be loath to have a single recent act of his undo the advantage he has built over the years.

The chief minister usually thinks through decisions and reliable sources say Nitish did have strong reservations about being the inaugural actor of Advani’s yatra to begin with. So much so that he did not give immediate assent when BJP president Nitin Gadkari called to request him on the issue. But Nitish’s misgivings centred more around what his Gujarat counterpart and bete noire, Narendra Modi, might have to do with the inaugural event. He was sure he would not share a dais with Modi.

Niggling suspicions that Modi supporters among the crowd might embarrass him either with posters or slogans were also bothering him. Sources said he sought blanket assurances on both counts from Arun Jaitley, a key pillar of the JD(U)-BJP alliance, before saying yes.

In the end, though, it wasn’t Modi but Advani himself who left the chief minister a little mortified with a comparison to Lalu Prasad that Nitish thought most impolitic.

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