Why are the BJP’s allies wary of Narendra Modi?

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There is widespread clamour within the BJP to name Narendra Modi as its prime ministerial candidate. It was evident in the ecstatic reception he received from jubilant party cadres on his arrival at the national capital after his recent victory in the Gujarat Assembly election. After Ram Jethmalani, the dissident voice in the BJP, even senior leader Yashwant Sinha has come out in the open to back the Gujarat strongman’s PM candidacy. The RSS too is pleased that its Hindutva poster boy is garnering all this attention and would have no qualms in backing him. The only glitch Modi faces is the staunch opposition from some NDA allies.

Late Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray had backed Sushma Swaraj as NDA’s candidate for the post of the PM. Uddhav Thackeray, who recently took over the reins of the Shiv Sena, has continued with the policies of his father. Senior journalist Nikhil Wagle told TEHELKA, “In one of his interviews, Bal Thackeray had said he wanted Swaraj as the PM candidate. Shiv Sena is only pushing that line.”

Wagle says the Sena’s main rival is Raj Thackeray’s MNS, and since Raj has been close to Modi (he was invited to Modi’s swearing-in after the re-election), the Sena does not want Modi to be the NDA’s PM candidate. Already pushed to the corner by the MNS, which has also staked claim to the ‘Marathi manoos’ agenda, it’s a matter of political survival for the Sena. “Shiv Sena is wary of Modi because Raj is close to him. Whoever is seen as the friend of Modi will have the votes of the Gujaratis in Mumbai, who comprise almost 30 percent of the city’s voters,” says Kumar Ketkar, a senior political commentator. The Sena is also wary of Modi poaching its Hindutva vote bank in Maharashtra. Modi has been the poster boy of the Hindutva brigade ever since the 2002 Gujarat riots.

Indeed, there is no middle ground when it comes to Modi. His name evokes reactions only in black and white. Though many of Modi’s critics — be it Sanjay Joshi or Keshubhai Patel — do not match up to his persona, when the man opposing him is Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, one is forced to take notice.

Nitish, who many believe has changed Bihar singlehandedly in past 10 years, has been quite vocal about his opposition to Modi. In the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, he made sure Modi did not come to Bihar for canvassing. The BJP had to agree to his demand, much to the chagrin of the party’s state unit. With another Lok Sabha poll around the corner, and a large vote bank among the minorities in Bihar, JD(U) does not want to risk its secular credentials.

Saibal Gupta of the Asian Development Research Institute, Patna, believes that Nitish knows secularism is one of the key aspects of his popularity in Bihar. “In our country, it has been proven that it’s not possible to run a smooth government in a state of acrimony, but Nitish Kumar has managed to bring social tranquility in Bihar over the last seven years. He helped rid the state of caste wars and communal strife. He fears conflicts may resurface with someone like Modi as PM.”

In a state where religious minorities make up 16 percent of the population, Nitish has a valid reason to stay away from any kind of communal controversy. Moreover, Nitish does not depend on the BJP for the upper caste votes in Bihar. “It’s the other way round. The BJP managed to do well in the last Assembly election, only because of its alliance with JD(U),” adds Gupta.