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Leap of stature in Pak odyssey
Visit signal for future

Lahore, Nov. 16: There’s a bequest chief minister Nitish Kumar has carried back home from Pakistan that escaped the customs authorities at Wagah. He has been gifted so profusely over the past week by his hosts, it required a station wagon to be added to his road caravan; the aircraft hold on the final lap to Patna would probably choke on their burden — trophy plaques, a rainbow range of traditional hats, piles of shawls and chadars, carton-loads of tomes on a shared civilisation and history.

But the takeaway that neither registered nor bleeped on the crossover X-ray ramps is what Nitish might want to treasure most from his trip — endorsement from a constituency that has dogged and harried generations of Indian leaders, a certificate of recognition and respect, Made in Pakistan.

Rajya Sabha member N.K. Singh, who slipped ineffably into jobbing as Nitish’s chief spokesman and interpreter during the visit, turned hot on domestic implications of the journey early in the trip.

“This cannot be only about Pakistan,” he told The Telegraph at the close of three rousing days for Nitish and his delegation in Karachi. “This is as much about what it could mean for politics back home. Don’t forget we are part of the NDA and in the scheme of that alliance the Bihar chief minister has now come to represent the (Atal Bihari) Vajpayee model more than anyone else. You want peace and progress in the region, then Nitish Kumar is the NDA’s best future bet, nobody else.”

Singh didn’t name Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi, who is perceived by many as aiming to grab the top NDA job, but it’s tough not to put that name to the object of his reference. Narendra Modi and Nitish Kumar have engaged in a long, often bitter, proxy duel for a future prize both deny seeking. But for all their disowning of ambition, they are seen as actors in an elaborate masquerade for prime ministership.

The Pakistan visit, at least in the estimation of N.K. Singh, has given Nitish a lead in the competitive trot. Narendra Modi has often made Pakistan-bashing the leitmotif of poll campaigns. Nitish has done the road Modi refused to take, and he may seek, now, to profit from shaking hands across the border that Modi wants rapped hard.

“Nitish Kumar will return from Pakistan with a vastly enhanced reputation,” Singh reckoned. “In the NDA’s scheme he is the man who now completely represents Vajpayee’s legacy, a man of peace rather than a man of confrontation. He will no longer be seen only as a Bihar leader, over the last seven days he has become larger of stature.”

This was not Nitish’s first outing abroad as chief minister (he has been to Mauritius and to China) but it can already count as his most noteworthy. Unprecedented access and applause has come his way, such as no other Indian politician has been accorded.

In protocol terms, Nitish’s high point was a Diwali night dinner invitation to Aiwan-e-Sadr or the Presidency in Islamabad; the last-minute tweaking of the itinerary at the request of Asif Ali Zardari’s office provoked pleasantly arched eyes even among mover-shakers of the Indian high commission in Islamabad.

“This is surely raising the bar on the visit,” a diplomat at the mission said. “Protocol didn’t require Zardari to host Nitish over dinner, he could have done with a formal call-on. That he laid out a table at home and summoned foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar to be in attendance says something. Interpret it how you will.”

Zardari’s was not the lone high table Nitish was requested to. Sindh chief minister Qaim Ali Shan waited almost constantly on Nitish during his three days in Karachi. Imran Khan of the Tehreek-e-Insaf covetously sought time and secured an hour’s initiation for his team on Nitish’s ideas on governance.

Here in Lahore, the brothers Sharif — Punjab chief minister Shahbaz and former and aspiring Prime Minister Nawaz — played hearty hosts. Their hugs were hard and long, their food a delight for gourmands and gluttons alike. Their treatment of Nitish was not Track II or provincial, it was mainline bilateral.

Nawaz Sharif wouldn’t else have spent the better part of his meeting with Nitish claiming how good his tenure in power had been for India-Pakistan ties.

“It was in my time that Vajpayee travelled by bus to Lahore and we saw friendship rise to new levels,” Nawaz Sharif told Nitish. “It is only after I went out of power that troubles began again.” Sharif omitted to mention going reactively nuclear or the Kargil war, which too were critical markers of his regime, but then Nitish hadn’t come here to argue or to confront.

Through this trip, the Bihar chief minister performed a dextrous slalom across the treacherous India-Pakistan minefield, dodging many a booby-trapped invitation to trip. He was asked about Kashmir and the 26/11 Mumbai assault, he was questioned over partnering the BJP and over his sense of Gujarat under Narendra Modi. He managed to say not a word in response.

Hamare maazi mein bahut kuchh hua hai, hamare mustaqbil mein bahut kuchh hona hai, main to yahan haath badhane aaya hoon (A lot has happened in our past, a lot remains to happen in our future, I have come here to extend a hand).”

It was a stock reply he had scripted ahead of his arrival, it seemed enough for him to carry the day with his Pakistani interlocutors. Narendra Modi wouldn’t like that.

Neither, perhaps, would Lalu Prasad, who might have hoped his celebrated exploits in Pakistan from a decade ago wouldn’t be overtaken. The irrepressible Lalu took Pakistan with his humour; Pakistan took Nitish Kumar seriously.

Our Patna bureau adds: Nitish will reach Patna on Saturday as this evening’s Air India flight from New Delhi to the Bihar capital was cancelled. The flight was to have left Delhi at 6.30pm on Friday and reached Patna around 8pm. Air India sources said the reason for the cancellation was shortage of aircraft at the Delhi airport.