| Health minister and BJP leader Ashwini Choubey on the campaign trail in Surat. Picture by Manish Vaidya |
Surat, Dec. 10: In the mini-Bihar that has come up in the world’s diamond hub, Narendra is as popular as Nitish.
Voters from Bihar, who make up a sizeable chunk of the electorate across 12 Assembly seats in Surat and one constituency in industry-rich Ankleshwar, say for them the Gujarat N — chief minister Modi — remains the best man to lead the state. Much like the other N —Nitish — who, they insist, is the best man for the job in Bihar.
There are around 1.5 lakh voters from Bihar in Surat, most of them engaged in the gems and jewellery business that flourishes in the Gujarat port city. For them, the unstated competition between the two Ns for the top political prize in the country and the consequent niggles in the relationship between the Bihar NDA allies mean little.
“We took leave to go to our native state and vote strongly in 2010 in Nitish Kumar’s favour,” says Ajay Singh (44), a native of north Bihar’s Siwan district who is in the jewellery business at Gadhkhol Patia — home to nearly 18,000 Biharis and part of Hansot Assembly segment in Ankleshwar.
D.N. Singh (50), a deputy sarpanch of Gadhkhol Patia who hails from Chhapra, agreed. “Yes, we went to vote for Nitish in 2010. Now, we are here to vote for Narendra Modi, lock stock and barrel. Not a single Bihari vote will go against Narendra Modi on Thursday.”
There are many like Ajay and D.N. Singh whose names figure in voters’ lists in both Bihar and Gujarat, an anomaly that the Election Commission is trying to address. Most of these voters possess two voters’ ID cards.
The Singhs epitomise the sentiment of the Bihari voters in Ankleshwar and Surat who are settled along the spanking Delhi-Mumbai National Highway (NH) 8.
The Bihari voters admire Modi and Nitish — leaders quite opposite in their political ideology and disposition — for similar reasons. “I came here as a small-time worker in a hardware company in 1994. Now, I am an entrepreneur in hardware, paying Rs 12 lakh as income tax,” says Ashok Jha, a native of Madhubani. “While Gujarat has given us means to live and prosper, Nitish Kumar too has been carrying out development work and improving law and order in Bihar. Both are great leaders committed to development and prosperity in their respective states.”
Travelling along the 75-km Ankleshwar-Surat stretch flanked by industries — pharmaceutical, chemical, sugar, cement, iron, carbon — and spanking hotels and motels and glazing high-rises, it is quite discernible that Modi has gone out of his way to woo the Bihari voters.
Unlike Congress campaigners — Sonia Gandhi, Manmohan Singh and Ahmed Patel — who opted to launch a verbal war on Modi, the Gujarat chief minister has pressed into service several Bihar BJP leaders, including ministers Ashwini Choubey and Giriraj Singh, and hundreds of cadres to camp and campaign in the Bihari-dominated pockets of Surat and Ankleshwar. Choubey, whose vocal “love” for Modi has at times earned the wrath of his boss, scoffed at speculation that Nitish would sever ties with the BJP if the Gujarat chief minister got in excess of 117 seats when the results are declared on December 20.
“It is a myth that Nitish Kumar and Narendra Modi will fall out. Narendra bhai will take his tally beyond 125 this time and the JD(U)-BJP relationship will get stronger,” he said. “The two are the strongest NDA leaders. They are too smart and diligent. They will work out ways to live and operate together rather than drifting apart to give a chance to the Congress which is fast losing its credentials,” Choubey reasoned.
BJP leaders here wish Modi and Nitish would bury the hatchet and move on. Some Bihari voters say they are “ashamed” that Nitish returned Modi’s cheque towards Kosi flood relief in 2010 and cancelled a dinner meant for BJP leaders in Patna.
“Though we love Nitish, we feel ashamed at why he denied dinner to Modi — a guest in Patna in 2010 — who takes good care of us Biharis here. Moreover, the people of Gujarat treat us like their brothers and sisters unlike in neighbouring Maharashtra,” says Sunil Mishra, a Madhubani resident and president of the Bihar Vikas Parishad, Surat unit.
Modi, while wooing Biharis, has taken care not to say anything that could be construed as an affront to Nitish. Silence often works better than vitriolic attacks.
Chief minister Nitish Kumar has iterated that he would support the alliance, after the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, that accords special status to Bihar.
His comments assume significance as Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi is projected, from some BJP quarters, as the next Prime Minister a couple of days before the western state goes to the Assembly elections.
“My views on the subject are well known and publicised. There is no use of repeating them. The issue (of NDA prime ministerial candidate) has not been discussed,” he said at janata durbar today while pointing out that the Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, Sushma Swaraj, had endorsed Modi as “Prime Minister material” and the BJP president Nitin Gadkari had hinted that the party might decide on its Prime Minister’s post after the general elections. “It seems that the BJP leaders are taking Nitish for granted. Nitish means what he says,” said a JD(U) MP.