Nitish’s call to name secular Prime Ministerial candidate in 2014 general elections offers a ray of hope

In Congress circles, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s asking the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leadership to name a Prime Ministerial candidate with secular credentials before the next general elections in 2014 is not just being viewed with approbation; In fact, since it comes on the heels of Mr. Kumar indicating that the Janata Dal-United (JD-U) is willing to break ranks with the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and vote for the Congress’ candidate for Rashtrapati Bhavan, it is being viewed as an opportunity.

In Bihar, the Congress won just four Assembly seats in 2010 and two Lok Sabha seats the year before. Given that its traditional partners in the State, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Lok Jan Shakti Party (LJP), have yet to recover ground, an arrangement with the JD(U) either before or after the 2014 general elections could help boost the UPA’s numbers, a Congress functionary told The Hindu on Tuesday.

In an interview to Economic Times, Mr. Kumar did not refer to Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi by name, but left no one in doubt that the JD(U) would walk out of the NDA were the latter to be projected as its prime ministerial candidate. “The leader of the coalition should have secular credentials and a liberal frame of mind,” he said. “I have cordial relations with the Bihar BJP. If external forces are bent on spoiling this relationship, I cannot help it,” he added.

Of course, Mr. Kumar’s reasons for these remarks are twofold: one, he cannot afford to be part of an alliance of which Mr. Modi is the prime ministerial candidate as it would alienate Muslim voters in Bihar; two, he himself has prime ministerial ambitions.

For the Congress, now at its lowest ebb, electorally, these developments are welcome, a party functionary said. Indeed, if the party initially viewed the task of nominating a “winning” candidate for Rashtrapati Bhavan as a challenge, it is now viewing the presidential elections as an opportunity — to forge new friendships outside the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), even as it will walk the extra mile to keep the alliance united.

The Congress, therefore, will not jettison the Trinamool Congress (TMC), party sources said on Tuesday, even if West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee succeeds in persuading her flock to vote against the UPA’s presidential candidate, Pranab Mukherjee. Thus far, barring general secretary Digvijay Singh’s criticism of Ms. Banerjee — for which he has been taken to task — all Congress leaders have made public appeals to her to vote for Mr. Mukherjee. If Congress media chairperson Janardan Dwivedi referred to her as a UPA ally, this was reiterated by party spokesperson Manish Tewari on Monday. And now Shakeel Ahmed, Congress functionary in charge of West Bengal, is playing peacemaker between the TMC and the State unit of the Congress. “The Trinamool was our ally, is our ally and will continue to be our ally,” he asserted on Tuesday.

TMC sources explained the reasons why Ms. Banerjee has been so adamant in her opposition to Mr. Mukherjee: one, she feels that once he is no longer Finance Minister, her chances of getting a bailout package/three-year moratorium on the State debt will recede even further; two, since she has prime ministerial ambitions of her own, she feels a Bengali Prime Minister is unlikely once there is a Bengali President; three, her support to the former President, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, was addressed to Muslims of West Bengal, who now constitute, according to the most recent census, 30 per cent of the population.

Meanwhile, the Presidential story is not panning out well for the BJP; if one ally, the JD(U), has indicated support for Mr. Mukherjee, another ally, the Shiv Sena, has made an appeal that he should become the unanimous choice of all parties. This comes after the Union Finance Minister telephoned Sena supremo Bal Thackeray and Sena executive president Uddhav Thackeray on Monday, seeking the party’s support. A third NDA ally, the Shiromani Akali Dal, is unhappy with the BJP. And the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazahgham (MDMK) had said it would abstain from voting.

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