Nitish lends variety to the debate on Modi

Regardless of whether Nitish Kumar’s gamble of parting company with the BJP in Bihar fails or succeeds, the Bihar chief minister has lent variety to the public discourse on Narendra Modi’s suitability as a candidate for the PM’s office.

Until the Janata Dal (U) rebelled and Nitish spoke up in the aftermath of the intra-BJP tumult led by LK Advani, the debate on Modi was largely one-sided. The refrain: a strong leader with a clear-cut agenda and track-record of governance in Gujarat.

Some political observers went to the extent of comparing him with Indira Gandhi; a Vishwa Hindu Parishad stalwart called him a latter day Pandit Nehru.

For his part, Modi began constructing a heavy-on-nationalism campaign around the persona of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, whose proposed statue of unity, he said, would be taller than the Statue of Liberty and be built with iron parts collected from people across the country.

Besides the very obvious historical flaws, the comparisons made to compound the Modi aura went largely unchallenged. Little was also heard by way of criticism of the planned statue of unity so reminiscent of the BJP-Sang Parivar movement to collect bricks for the Ram Temple that never came up in Ayodhya. Vajpayee and Advani then were the party’s supreme leaders.

The block Nitish set up in the way of the Modi bandwagon brought home the BJP’s political isolation against which Advani had cautioned his party men. The unbridled NDA discord muted somewhat the anti-Congressism that was so tangible until then. The focus suddenly was on Modi’s shortcomings in leading a conglomeration of parties into elections.

There was little reason for the Congress to be overtly exultant. But it wasn’t at the same time a mean blow for the BJP.

It’s difficult to guess how things will pan out for the BJP under Modi, the widely perceived urban-hero, in the impending assembly polls and the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. But for getting anointed as PM, the Gujarat strongman would need a tally of 180-200. Or else, his adversaries will have an upper hand.

Even Atal Behari Vajpayee had failed to assemble the numbers he required in 1996. His turn came two years later, in 1998 and thereafter in 1999, when the Congress messed up after bringing down his government by one vote.

Coalition politics isn’t an easy ground for strong leaders given to loud proclamations. It’s a wicket on which amenable – if somewhat less effective- leaders bat longer. Indira’s strength was always anchored in the numbers she had in Parliament.

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