Hi-tech blitz battles silent symbols

Strategic move to make Nitish solitary soldier

By Sankarshan Thakur
  • Published 24.07.15
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The skyline of Patna is awash with banners of (top) Narendra Modi and (bottom) Nitish Kumar with raised fingers and catchy slogans. Pictures by Sankarshan Thakur

Patna, July 23: Chief minister Nitish Kumar's bid to secure power a third successive time rides a most odd vehicle: Nitish Kumar posters that are so much about Nitish Kumar that they omit to mention either his Janata Dal United or its symbol, the arrow.

" Aage badhta rahey Bihar, Phir ek baar Nitish Kumar" and "Bihar mein bahaar ho, Nitishey Kumar ho" are the two big-banner slogans set afloat across Patna and parts of Bihar. Neither accords its protagonist a party or a symbol.

Both are the handiwork of Prashant Kishor, the political strategist who took a pendulum leap from Narendra Modi's backrooms sometime back to the Nitish bandwagon.

At first sight, it would appear Kishor is guilty of unthinking oversight. Party symbols are critical to balloting in India, the need to imprint them on the public mind can barely be overstated.

But if it's an omission Nitish's chief publicist has committed, it's an omission of deliberation and design. Those banners are a project to carpet-bomb Bihar with a persona rather than a party and create a single-man brand of Nitish above all else, even above his party and symbol, in a manner that it begins to beg the question: If not Nitish, who?

It seems not to matter in Prashant Kishor's war-room, now located within Nitish Kumar's official 7 Circular Road residence in west Patna, that such singular and high-voltage projection of the chief minister may have left his senior ally and RJD boss Lalu Prasad privately miffed.

It seems not to matter that the prominent absence of Lalu from Nitish's campaign posters has given the BJP a handle to mock him.

"Lalu enjoys such a poor image that even after joining hands with him, Nitish doesn't dare put his photograph, he's afraid he will suffer an image-loss," BJP president Amit Shah jeered while opening the NDA's "Parivartan Rath" campaign here last week.

Insiders of the Nitish camp know both to be true. Lalu is displeased he enjoys no space on the Nitish campaign, not even as Number Two, not even after he drank the "poisoned chalice" of accepting Nitish as face of the campaign. Equally, they know the BJP will exploit, with some credibility, Nitish's U-turn embrace of Lalu, against whom he led the "jungle raj" crusade and eventually won. It's lost on nobody in Bihar that much as he needs Lalu's voter base to shore up his ambitions, Nitish remains squeamish about Lalu's company and style of politics. One section in the Nitish camp is, in fact, not convinced Lalu won't prove a liability. Partly, the Nitish-centric campaign owes to the possibility the alliance may not eventually work.

The foregrounding of the Nitish brand is also meant to work as bulwark against the BJP. As a senior functionary of Prashant Kishor's India Political Action Committee (IPAC) told The Telegraph: "Narendra Modi and the BJP make a formidable force, not least because of the resources at their command. This election can only be won against them if Nitish becomes the chief visible choice as chief minister in the public mind. This campaign has to be about Nitish and what he has done and can do in Bihar."

Kishor's central message to his team is: make Nitish look like the best and only choice available to Bihar.

Kishor crafts his Nitish campaign at a clear remove from the traditional party apparatus, and often at cross-purposes with it. But to some in the JDU, the signposting of Nitish without party name or symbol is beginning to make sense.

"These posters reinforce the truth that Nitish Kumar is central to the discourse of this election," says JDU spokesperson Ajay Alok.

"The BJP should spell out if they have an alternative to our leader, if they can show us the man they want to be future chief minister of Bihar."

That's a dare the BJP has been unequal to. For every Nitish banner in Patna now, the BJP has unveiled two, probably even three. But the man on each of them is one who is not aspiring to be chief minister of Bihar; he is already Prime Minister of India.

Patna's skyline is a rampant war-ground between Nitish Kumar and Narendra Modi, their poses remarkably similar, their faces looming over the kingdom now up for grabs, their fingers raised as if warning the people of the other.

Everywhere you look up you see either Nitish Kumar, or you see Narendra Modi. Only one of them seeks to be chief minister of Bihar. The identity of his competitor remains obscured behind the ubiquitous mask of Narendra Modi. It's nothing the Nitish team minds.