By JOCELINE TAN
DATUK Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat was a picture of protocol as he accompanied the Sultan of Kelantan when the latter made the royal rounds at his birthday garden party.
But the Kelantan Mentri Besar's ceremonial black jubah lent him a rather severe and solemn air amid the light-hearted mood in the palace grounds.
Nik Aziz kept a few steps behind the sovereign who wore a gorgeous, sky-blue songket outfit with matching head dress.
When the Tuanku paused to shake hands with Datuk Husam Musa, Nik Aziz allowed himself a small smile before he also congratulated Husam with a simple “Tahniah!”
Just hours earlier, Husam had been conferred a Datukship by the Sultan in conjunction with his 56th birthday.
And despite the sparse exchange between Nik Aziz and Husam, it is no secret that the elderly PAS leader was really pleased about the younger man's new title.
It is also no secret that Nik Aziz sees Husam as Mentri Besar material.
Given that, the title of Datuk for this rising star in PAS assumes a certain significance in the eyes of onlookers.
A title from the sovereign is an important gesture of royal acknowledgement for one's contribution and status.
“It means that Tuanku accepts him,” said a Kelantan professional with close links to PAS.
The Palace is above politics, as they like to say, but Kelantanese are such political creatures that there are few events in the state that they do not connect to politics.
Besides, the air is thick with talk of a snap state election.
Almost everything assumes a political connotation, real or imagined.
Likewise, the audience that the Sultan granted to Kelantan Umno chief Datuk Seri Annuar Musa a week ago came under great public scrutiny.
The Sultan and the Raja Perempuan met Annuar and his wife for more than an hour.
“It was his first personal audience with Tuanku in years. It is good for Umno and good for the state,” said Annuar's close friend and Ketereh MP Datuk Alwi Che Ahmad.
In fact, it was the first audience the Umno leader had been granted in more than 10 years and the event was the talk of Kota Baru.
The relationship between Annuar and the Palace had been frosty following Annuar's role in the state constitutional crisis in the 1990s.
Annuar was alleged to have backed a pretender to the Kelantan throne, something royalists in the state have not let him forget till now.
PAS has also made much political capital out of Annuar’s dilemma.
During last year's state by-election, flyers of Annuar standing alongside the alleged pretender was widely distributed in an effort to discredit the Umno politician.
In that sense, the audience with the Tuanku has been a boost to Annuar's image.
“To form the government, the leadership must be accepted by the Palace. The royal audience shows that the Palace is okay with the state Umno leadership,” said Alwi.
It has been a week of very mixed signals.
Annuar and Husam share the same last name, their late fathers were Tok Guru but they could not be further apart in their politics.
At the same time, they are seen as potentiates for a common office, namely the Mentri Besar post.
Their respective privileges with the palace in the past week were seen as a signal that they are acceptable candidates for the post.
The above events have added fuel to speculation of PAS assemblymen in the process of crossing over to Umno or resigning their seats and of tempting sums of money offered.
“We are giving them sleepless nights,” said Alwi.
The rumours irritated Nik Aziz to the extent that he has lashed out at those allegedly making the offers as “frantic,” “greedy” and indulging in “day-dreaming.”
The Malay writer Sayuti Omar hinted that “a big name who is also a state exco member” might cross over.
His publication Siasah recently broke the story that PAS assemblyman for Kemuning Zakaria Yaakob had been offered several million ringgit via a middleman to cross over.
It would not take much to tilt the balance of power in the state given that the PAS government is holding on to power by just a one-seat majority.
Almost every Umno politician related to a PAS assemblyman has tried to lobby their relative to consider resigning or crossing over.
Pasir Mas Umno division head Datuk Rahim Abdul Rahim admitted he had “done my bit” to talk to his younger half-brother Major Anizam Abdul Rahim who is PAS' Kemahang assemblyman.
“We are family but it is well-known in the whole of Kelantan that Anizam is PAS and Rahim is Umno,” said Rahim with a sigh.
Bunut Payong assemblyman Takiyuddin Hassan whose uncle is former minister Tan Sri Hamid Othman indicated he had been approached many times, sometimes seriously, sometimes in a casual manner.
“I always remind them that I am the PAS secretary and former Youth chief (for Kelantan), and that they have come to the wrong person. But they say the offer is always open,” said Takiyuddin.
But Umno's Annuar insists that all these so-called offers are not coming from him or even Kelantan Umno.
“Crossovers or resignations are not going to benefit us. It will only give us another fragile majority like what PAS has now. A real victory with a big mandate is what we want,” he said.
Fishing in troubled waters is one thing. Getting the fish to bite is another.
Most Umno politicians admit by now that it has been quite impossible to induce any of the 23 PAS assemblymen to cross over and enable Umno to hold the majority in the State Legislative Assembly.
“Politics can be very rough in Kelantan but money is not the first consideration for our assemblymen,” said Datuk Mustafa Ali, one of the most influential figures in PAS.
Mustafa quashed talk that PAS favoured a snap state election in order to win a stronger mandate.
“We are not stupid. There is no way we will push for a snap election, we'll hold on to the state till the next general election,” he said.
Mustafa also confirmed that this would be Nik Aziz's final term as Mentri Besar but there was no question of him resigning mid-term.
He named two possible candidates to take over – the current Deputy Mentri Besar Datuk Ahmad Yaakob or Husam, who now holds the most important portfolio in the state exco.
It is quite obvious that even as PAS is trying to prevent a snap election, it is preparing for any eventuality and that includes giving voters the prospect of a younger leadership line-up.
In the meantime, the persuasion and offers will continue and the speculation will go on.
“It won't stop because there is such a big prize involved,” said Takiyuddin. And the bigprize is the state government.