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Sinha sets up Modi test for Nitish nerves

New Delhi, Jan. 28: BJP leader Yashwant Sinha today pitched Narendra Modi for Prime Minister and put the alliance ball in Nitish Kumar’s court, taking what appears to be a calculated gamble to test if the Bihar ally can afford to walk out of the NDA.

“When I travel, there is a strong demand from common people and (BJP) workers that Modi should be declared as the PM candidate because this will benefit the party. After careful thought, I have concluded that if the BJP declares Modi as its PM candidate, the BJP will benefit hugely in the elections,” said Sinha, a former finance and foreign minister who has been firing the first shots on touchy issues.

Earlier, he told a television channel: “If the Dal (United) willingly leaves the NDA, it will not be stopped. The BJP will look for other options.”

Sinha later told reporters that as one of the NDA’s oldest allies, the Dal (United) would be making a “mistake” if it quit the Opposition alliance. “It should remain in the alliance,” he stressed but demurred at the suggestion that the Bihar chief minister had irreconcilable issues with Modi.

“To target one particular person is unfair. Either the entire party is secular or the entire party is communal. Within the party, you cannot pick and choose. That is a flawed argument,” Sinha contended.

Nitish did not respond till late this evening but Dal (United) chief Sharad Yadav told PTI in a carefully worded response: “Alliances are formed with great difficulty and BJP leader Yashwant Sinha’s statement is uncalled for in the context of alliances.”

In Patna, a close aide to Nitish said the chief minister stood by his earlier condition that the NDA candidate would have to be “secular”.

“We were expecting the orchestra in favour of the Gujarat chief minister. But there are two points. First, Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar had made it clear about the choice of his candidate for the Prime Minister’s post. Second, it was decided that the BJP would decide the prime ministerial candidate after consulting the NDA constituents. We will make our stand clear whenever that time comes,” the aide said.

Sources said Sinha, whose statement came a day after Modi said he had detailed discussions with BJP chief Rajnath Singh on the 2014 election, was articulating an opinion gaining ground within the party.

A large section of the BJP, particularly members from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, has been chafing at Nitish’s “shoddy” treatment of Modi, which reached a flashpoint in Patna during the 2011 national executive.

Upset with Modi’s “fans” plastering the state capital with the Gujarat chief minister’s posters — the Bihar elections were barely months away — Nitish called off a dinner he was to host for the BJP leaders. The posters were removed later.

Officially, the BJP reacted with circumspection to Sinha’s statements, neither fully adopting or rejecting it. Rajnath said in Nagpur: “I have not seen the details of Sinha’s comments. But there is no doubt that Modi is the most popular leader we have.”

Several BJP leaders privately concurred with Sinha, maintaining that “beyond a point” they were unprepared to put up with the Bihar chief minister’s “humiliation” of Modi. “He is the only person with the potential to recover the votes we lost between 1999 and 2009 and possibly add another 2 or 3 per cent,” a spokesperson said.

This section feels that Nitish is no longer invincible in Bihar and he needs the NDA as much as the alliance needs him. If he walks out, the split in the upper caste vote will not be compensated by the gain from minority votes because Lalu Prasad still has considerable backing among Muslims.

The BJP sources said they felt that Nitish would read the signals emerging from a Lok Sabha bypoll in Maharajgunj — where Lalu’s candidate will be pitted against Dal (United’s) — and then drop clues on which way he would tilt.

Asked if Modi was fully ready to don the national mantle, a source close to him said from Gujarat: “Yes, he is not doing it for self-glory. It is a task the party might be handing over to him, he will do it to the best of his ability.”

Until last month, the BJP gave the impression it was in no hurry to grapple with the leadership question. Rahul Gandhi’s frontline projection in Jaipur and the perception that he was sure to spearhead the poll campaign injected an unexpected sense of urgency in the BJP.