: Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar positioning himself against his Gujarat counterpart Narendra Modi, by calling for a “secular” prime ministerial candidate, has struck a cord among Muslims, but the community is taking him with a pinch of salt. His “secular” image will be put to test, if his party, the Janata Dal (United), continues its ties with the Bharatiya Janata Party in the next Lok Sabha elections.

In Kishanganj district in, where Muslims constitute about 70 per cent of the population, there is much anger against Mr. Kumar’s “two-faced” approach.

“He is fooling all of us. They [Mr. Kumar and BJP leaders] are all alike. Mr. Kumar’s claim of being a leader of Muslims is just wishful thinking. Mr. Modi is openly against Muslims, but Mr. Kumar is two-faced. He shows he is with us, but works against us,” says MD Moquimuddin from the Thakurganj Assembly constituency.

Echoing a similar view, Mir Aftab Hussain, retired LIC officer from Bhagalpur district, says: “Mr. Kumar’s anti-Modi stand is part of a well-planned political strategy of wanting to grow his own strength by staying with the National Democratic Alliance [NDA]. If he talks of secularism, where was it during the Gujarat riots when he was the Railway Minister? If his conscience is clear, he would have directly asked the BJP to declare its prime ministerial candidate. Instead, he is strengthening the NDA by misleading the minority community. Mr. Kumar and Mr. Modi are two sides of the same coin. Mr. Kumar has taken this stand very early before the polls. As the polls get closer, Muslims will understand this issue very clearly.”

Terming Mr. Kumar’s politics “a ploy,” Anwar Hussain of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) from Aurangabad district feels Mr. Kumar’s “real intention” is to help Mr. Modi win by misleading Muslims into believing he is opposing him.

There is nevertheless a sense of relief among a section of the community that “at least someone has raised a voice against Mr. Modi.” “Generally, Mr. Modi is the problem; not the BJP. We are happy with Mr. Kumar for opposing Mr. Modi,” says Rahat Alam from Kishanganj’s Kochadhaman constituency, where Muslims constitute almost 76 per cent of the population.

“As a party, the BJP is all right, but some have ruined it. If it declares its prime ministerial candidate other than Mr. Modi, we do not have an issue with it,” said Abdul Razzak, principal of a madrasa in the Thakurganj Assembly constituency.

A problem in Mr. Kumar’s minority politics is his public praise of senior BJP leader L.K. Advani.

“Let’s say the post-Godhra riots were a reaction to the Sabarmati train burning, but what about Babri Masjid? More than Mr. Modi, Mr. Advani is to be blamed for ruining the entire atmosphere in the country. We accept neither of them. Mr. Kumar is not sending any positive message among Muslims. Why didn’t he put pressure on the Vajpayee-led government asking for Mr. Modi’s resignation, when he was the Railway Minister? At least Ram Vilas Paswan resigned,” said Ibrar Ansari, a JD(U) member from Bhagalpur.

The JD(U) had not come out clearly on pre-poll declaration of prime ministerial candidate. It has given time to the BJP until December, but if polls are held before that “ Muslims will just be used for votes,” he said.

Accusing the Bihar Chief Minister of “doublespeak,” Shafkat Imam Naushad from Darbhanga says, “For him, Mr. Modi is not secular, but Mr. Advani is. This doublespeak won’t do.”

Evidently, the JD (U)-BJP alliance is the key hurdle to Mr. Kumar gaining the minority support. In Kishanganj, Bhagalpur and Darbhanga districts, also parliamentary constituencies, there is a distinct preference among JD (U) workers and the Muslims at large for ending the alliance.

“After creating a certain mood against Mr. Modi, if Mr. Kumar still stays with the BJP, all his efforts to get Muslim votes will come to naught,” Mansoor Khan of the JD(U) from Kishanganj said.

“Mr. Kumar calls himself secular after having ties with the BJP for 17 years. Unless he severs them, we will think he’s not any different from the BJP,” says Maulana Hashim Naumani from Bhagalpur.

What Modi?

With just one Muslim-heavy Lok Sabha seat in Bihar the Congress cannot bank on any gains from the community. Its second seat is from Sasaram, where Meira Kumar is the sitting MP.