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Nitish eyes meatier minority support Silent barb at Modi backers

Kishanganj, Sept. 30: Chief minister Nitish Kumar’s speech today was made by two bits of silence.

With one he defined where he stood in the scheme of politics; the other he used to draw the line for those among his BJP allies who are excited to promote Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi to the NDA forefront.

Just as Nitish was warming up to the climax of case-building for special status to Bihar, a muezzin’s call rose from a nearby mosque, needling up the minarets into the afternoon sky. He stopped mid-sentence, head down on the lectern. A sudden hush fell over the assembly and for a long minute while the invocation to Allah echoed, a political marquee lay converted into a prayer hall.

At the close of the namaaz he broke his oratory again and cued his audience into due deference.

It is anybody’s guess if Nitish grabbed a solemn moment or the solemnity of the moment grabbed him but he couldn’t have more in the course of a fleeting campaign visit to seduce opinion in Bihar’s most Muslim-preponderant district.

And to framers of the national discourse in the run-up to 2014, he couldn’t have posted a subtler missive of contrast between himself and Modi. Astride the “sadbhavana” stage in Gujarat last year, Modi had rebuffed a cleric’s offering of a skull-cup; the gift’s symbolism was too Muslim for his liking. This afternoon on a far less fancy stage at the other end of the nation from Gujarat, Nitish endeared himself with interruptions nobody had asked or expected him to make.

Considering he carries the BJP on his shoulders, Nitish is buoyed by a fair statistic of Muslim support. Its first tangible evidence surfaced during the Assembly vote of 2010, which Nitish steamrolled. In successive by-elections thereafter — particularly in Muslim-dominated pockets like Daraunda and Laukaha — that trend has been buttressed.

But Nitish is clearly looking for a meatier share of Muslim backing. The reason could well go beyond local requirements of bulwarking against Lalu Prasad’s RJD, which retains its hold over sections of minority sentiment. It is not unreasonable to believe Nitish is also persuaded by the possibility of a break with the BJP ahead of the next general elections.

Should Narendra Modi hector his way to the top in the BJP, Nitish will impose a parting of ways. In unabashedly wooing Muslims he is accounting for vote bank contingencies. “His outlook on Muslims has never been dictated by the BJP or the Sangh,” a top Bihar minister accompanying Nitish told The Telegraph backstage in Kishanganj, “It has never worried him what they think or say about his pro-minority politics, there isn’t any compromise on this.”

The Kishanganj outing has been affirmation of Nitish’s engaged pursuit of Muslim endorsement. Driving from Araria to Kishanganj last evening he took a detour to visit Mohammed Taslimuddin. The ailing former MP from Kishanganj is no longer the strong arm force he used to be but he retains a loosened hold over the electorate that Nitish doesn’t want lost.

He stayed the night in Kishanganj on the estate of Ismail Rahmania who, other than being a JD(U) votary, is also an influential community figurehead. Immediately beside him on stage this afternoon sat Parveen Amanullah, minister for social welfare. A more pertinent description for Amanullah might be that she is the daughter of Syed Shahabuddin, a bit of a legend among MPs Kishanganj has sent to the Lok Sabha.

Nitish chose his words in Kishanganj as carefully as he had chosen his company. When it came to making a case for fast-tracking development in the state, he picked out quotes from recent media interviews given by Pakistani foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar and power aspirant Imran Khan. Both have flagged Nitish’s Bihar as a model prototype under-developed Pakistan should draw lessons from. “It is not an ordinary thing that top leaders from Pakistan have chosen to talk about Bihar of all states in India,” Nitish said: “Surely they must have seen something special about what is happening here to do that.” He then spoke, amid murmured approval, of journeying to Pakistan — “Probably in November if the Government of India thinks it fit”— and building friendlier fences with the neighbour. Narendra Modi, who has often trained his campaign guns on Pakistan, wouldn’t approve. But whoever said Nitish cares about what Narendra Modi thinks?


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