First, a flashback. Nitish Kumar has come a long way since May 10, 2009. That day he was outfoxed by Narendra Modi in full public view.
A reluctant Kumar was cajoled by L. K. Advani and Arun Jaitely to attend a mega NDA rally in Ludhiana. Kumar’s bête noire Modi was among the invitees, whom the Bihar CM has been avoiding like the plague. As the NDA phalanx stood up to greet the assembled crowd, a mischievous Modi (Gujarat CM then), walked fast and quickly grabbed the hand of an unguarded Kumar, held it aloft for the multitude to see. And as the shutterbugs clicked furiously, a volcano of anger welled up inside the Bihar CM; a photo-op he had been dreading. Later, a livid Kumar gave a mouthful to a BJP legislator (who accompanied him to Patna) for scripting the embarrassing denouement). Predictably, the next day almost all newspapers front paged the iconic picture to Kumar’s horror. A stung CM snubbed BJP’s state leadership for releasing the shot to media houses. Kumar feared that his “secular” image may be tarnished if seen with Modi in the same frame.
His pathological dislike for Modi was such that a year later he even rejected Gujarat government’s donation of Rs.5 crore towards flood relief for submerged Kosi region. And three years later, Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) snapped its 17-year-old ties with BJP enraged by the projection of Modi as PM candidate. The bad blood continued till 2015 when the grand alliance of JDU-RJD-Congress trounced BJP in the Bihar elections. Much water has flowed under the bridge since.
In fact, months before the demonetisation controversy, Kumar and Modi have been quietly warming up to each other. Post 2015, the mutual antagonism ebbed as a budding romance wafted in the air. Last week, he did the unthinkable; went public praising Prime Minister Modi on currency reform and refused to join the Opposition protest against its sloppy implementation, risking his camaraderie with Mamata Banerjee, Arvind Kejriwal, and many others.
Betraying a burgeoning comfort level between the BJP and Kumar, the latter was recently included in a panel to commemorate the birth centenary of RSS ideologue Deendayal Upadhyaya. The Congress was kept out. The choice of Kumar is surprising, as he has, since last year, been parroting the need for an “RSS-mukht” India, a supposed counter to Modi’s Congress-mukt Bharat slogan.
In fact, Kumar’s flirtations with Modi began in March this year when they shared a dais in Patna; the PM praised “mitra” (friend) for the electrification works in Bihar even as he lashed out at the RJD and the Congress for the backwardness of the State. “If we have to change the future of India, we have to first change the fortunes of Bihar. I have full conviction that the Centre and State will march shoulder to shoulder,” said Modi. A beaming Kumar returned the compliment. “I request the Prime Minister to keep visiting Bihar, offering development projects. Bihar’s growth is synonymous with that of the country. I am sure the Prime Minister will take us along in the development vehicle…”
In August, the two “vikas purushs” had another meeting in Delhi to discuss silt management of Ganga. After the official tete-a-tete, the duo had a closed-door meeting without aides.
If politics is the art of the shameless, then U-turns are not passé. It is too early to decipher Kumar’s game plan that may unfold in the run up to the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. What is discernible is that there is a method to his madness. He strikes, at the appropriate time. He takes two to three years to prepare the ground for his next move, conjuring up convincing justifications. Together with fiery George Fernandez he had split the Janata Dal in 1995 to avenge personal slights by Lalu Prasad Yadav. He took a U-turn last year and embraced Yadav again after 20-odd years. Will he backtrack on demonetisation issue as well?
Kumar’s newfound bonhomie with Modi may be borne out of his calculation that he may not be the CM candidate of the alliance in 2020. Despite securing more seats (81 RJD, 70 JDU and Congress 27), Lalu had grudgingly ceded the top post to Kumar. Lalu is since grooming his 26-year-old son Tejashwi Prasad Yadav, now deputy chief minister, to take over the mantle eventually. Kumar may be smelling a sub plot. That is why he is sending out appropriate messages to both the camps, his intended targets — Lalu and Modi.
Kumar belongs to the miniscule backward Kurmi caste accounting for just 3.78 per cent of the population. To remain at the helm in Bihar, he needs the props either of BJP or RJD. And, he knows quite well that in 2020 Lalu will not play ball and hence the flip-flops, premeditated as they are.
BJP has 53 MLAs in the 243-member Assembly and a JDU-BJP government is very much possible, and Lalu Yadav is aware of it. An astute political animal that he is, Kumar may not upset the secular applecart yet. For, if he does another U-turn now, his credibility may suffer a severe blow, especially among the Muslim voters. His strong support to demonetisation downplaying the hardships of the aam admi has not gone down well with his old socialist chums and regional satraps like Mamata and Kejriwal. Unwittingly, he may have created doubts about his ideological neutrality in the minds of Left-of-Centre forces undermining his chances of emerging a strong counterfoil to Modi in 2019. Conversely, he may have endeared himself to the economic Right and the BJP, just in case there is a hung Parliament in 2019. It is in Kumar’s interest that he does not fall between two stools.
The author is an an independent journalist