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'The party will decide on the chief minister only after the poll results'

Caste or community has never been an issue for Sushil Kumar Modi. The Bharatiya Janata Party leader, who is married to Jessie George, a Christian from Kerala, is mum on the possibility of his becoming chief minister if the BJP comes to power in Bihar, but tells Debaashish Bhattacharya that the people want current chief minister Nitish Kumar out

Published 09.08.15, 12:00 AM

In the murky quagmire of caste politics in Bihar where politicians shed surnames to avoid caste identification, Sushil Kumar Modi likes to stick to his family name. Deleting his last name, the 63-year-old former Bihar deputy chief minister says, would be like cutting off a primate's tail.

Attired in his trademark white kurta and pyjamas with a black vest, his grey beard carefully trimmed, the Bharatiya Janata Party leader says he does not believe that using his surname has been a mistake.

"In any case, my party does not believe in caste politics," he says when we meet on a recent rain-sodden morning in Patna. "Nor do I," he adds with a smile.

Modi, who belongs to the Baniya caste, is arguably the most powerful leader of the BJP in Bihar, which is gearing up for Assembly polls slated for this fall. He is indeed the public face of the party and many in Bihar believe that he could well become the chief minister if the BJP comes to power.

Yet the BJP refrains from naming him the party's official candidate. The party high command, the buzz goes, doesn't want to antagonise other chief ministerial hopefuls before the polls.

As a Bihar BJP legislator puts it, the party cannot afford to "field someone with a Baniya surname" as a candidate for the chief minister's post when some leaders from the BJP and allies belonging to upper and backward castes have been publicly aspiring for the job.

I ask Modi if he has ever toyed with the idea of giving up his surname for greater political acceptance. A surname, after all, shows which caste or community you belong to and can thus be either a liability or an asset when it comes to gathering votes.

Modi replies that he had once thought of giving up his surname, but then decided against it.

And he narrates why.

In the mid-1970s, Bihar was in the grip of an anti-Congress movement led by the late socialist leader, Jayaprakash Narayan. Then a student leader who fought alongside Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar in the movement, Modi says they all decided not to use their surnames because they highlighted their castes.

But Modi soon realised he would face an "identity problem" if he dropped his surname and became "Sushil Kumar" instead.

"I was known more by my last name than by my first name. So, after a lot of consideration, I decided to keep my surname," he recalls.

Years later, though, he ensured that his sons - Utkarsh Tathagath and Akshay Amritanshu - were known only by their given names.

"I have not given them my surname because I do not want them to be identified by any caste," says the proud father of a bank executive and a lawyer. "The surname symbolises caste in Bihar," he notes.

His political adversaries - from Nitish Kumar of the Janata Dal (United) to Rashtriya Janata Dal boss Lalu Prasad - would agree. Not so long ago, Lalu dropped Yadav from his name to avoid being branded only a Yadav leader. Nitish Kumar, who belongs to the backward Kurmi caste and abandoned his surname a long time ago, seeks to project himself as an inclusive leader.

Caste - or community - has never been an issue for Modi, once a staunch Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) activist. The BJP leader - who studied at a missionary school in Patna and stood second in botany from Patna University - is married to Jessie George, a Christian from Kerala, who teaches at a Patna college.

They met on a train in 1985, when Modi, then an Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) leader, was returning from Mumbai. They were married the following year, and former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee was among the guests.

"It was an inter-caste marriage and it shows, in some ways, that I have never been in favour of - or against - any caste or community," says the leader who once saw himself as a rebel.

As torrential rains whip Patna, we speak in a tiny room attached to his spacious office in his official residence on Polo Road in the Bihar capital.

The former finance minister in the Nitish Kumar government - a post he held with the deputy chief ministership until the chief minister parted ways with the BJP in June 2013 - is by all accounts an influential politician in Bihar.

Yet his sprawling government bungalow is a picture of neglect, with overgrown yards, mildewed walls and damp and musty rooms. The chair I perch on creaks and groans. A mouse scuttles across the floor.

Of course, Modi, who is from a conservative business family from Patna and once ran a computer institute with a bank loan of Rs 70,000, does not stay in his official residence. He lives with his family in his own house in the tony locality of Rajendranagar.

But he comes to his official residence every morning and stays there till evening to meet party workers and others.

"Government officials do not bother about a bungalow unless a minister is living there and I am no longer a minister," Modi says with a resigned smile.

That may change. Despite the BJP's refusal to name its chief ministerial candidate, most in the party believe that if the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by the BJP wins, Modi will sit on the chief minister's chair.

In fact, former BJP president and current Union minister M. Venkaiah Naidu recently said that "a Modi in Delhi and a Modi in Bihar would be good" for both the state and the country. Besides, party insiders point out that he has "good relations" with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party president Amit Shah. Modi first met Narendra Modi, then an RSS worker, in 1982, when he visited Gujarat as ABVP general secretary.

Modi, of course, won't answer any questions about his chief ministerial aspirations.

"Dislodging the Nitish Kumar government is our only goal now. The party will decide on the chief minister only after the poll results," he says. Is he in the fray? He won't say.

That's understandable, because a careless remark can rile any of his colleagues eyeing the top post. So Modi says the expected - that the BJP has "several talented" leaders who could become the chief minister, but he won't hazard any guesses.

But the man who was arrested five times between 1974 and 1977 for anti-Congress agitation and spent 24 months in jail, including 19 months during the Emergency, has clearly been preparing for the top post.

And not being in ministry, ironically, has helped him. "Since I don't have any ministerial responsibilities, I have been free to move around, meeting people and attending party programmes for the last two years," he says. He is away from Patna half the month, touring the districts.

As he travels more and more, Modi says he senses a strong anti-incumbency wave against the Nitish Kumar government. Nitish's alliance with Lalu Prasad, he claims, has turned the people against him even more since they fear a "return of jungle raj" in the state: "They want him out now."

<,>M<,>odi doesn't believe that the chief minister's move to engage spin doctors such as Prashant Kishore, involved in the 2014 Narendra Modi campaigns, will work in Bihar. "No one made Narendra Modi a Prime Minister. The people gave him a chance since he was a fresh face in Delhi," he says. "Nitish Kumar, on the hand, is an old face in Patna who has been tried and tested."

The BJP is on a roll, he believes, because the party is no longer just an upper caste outfit in the state. It has nurtured the backward castes over the years and has several Yadav leaders, for instance, in its ranks.

And with Ram Vilas Paswan and Jitan Ram Manjhi part of the NDA, he is convinced the BJP will be able to garner both Dalit and Mahadalit votes in Bihar - represented by the two leaders.

As for Muslims, Modi holds that they are "not as much against the BJP in Bihar as they are in other states." After all, he adds, the BJP was part of the Nitish Kumar government when its programmes for the minority community were devised.

For all his busy schedule, Modi is a stickler for routine and discipline. A strict vegetarian, he says he has no vices - he does not drink tea or coffee, let alone alcohol.

His day starts with 45 minutes of yoga, followed by a 45-minute walk in a park near his house.

He seldom meets anyone at home and keeps an old Samsung phone - apart from an ageing iPad - with him "with a private mobile number" just to speak to his wife and sons.

"Anyone who wants to reach me calls my secretary. It is impossible for me to take some 100 phone calls that I receive every day," he says.

As if on cue, an aide pokes his head through the door to the tiny room and reminds him of waiting visitors. Modi steals a glance at the slim Longines watch on his wrist-his only extravagance, he says - and gets up, his chair creaking as he does so.

The man who doesn't want his last name deleted is possibly waiting to get back to his big office.

And the former deputy chief minister wouldn't mind if the tag of a deputy got deleted after the elections.

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