The rare bonhomie between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar on the former’s visit to Patna to commemorate the 350th birth anniversary of Guru Gobind Singh could well prove to be a game-changer for national politics. After Nitish received Modi at the airport as per protocol, there was a perceptible warmth and the re-bonding of a possible longer term relationship. Considering that the two mass leaders have been bitter rivals after Nitish walked out of an alliance with the BJP in the wake of Modi being anointed as the BJP mascot in the 2014 general elections, the smiles, the laughs and the seemingly perfect chemistry reminded one of the oft-quoted saying
that in politics there are neither permanent friends nor permanent enemies. Back when Nitish was railway minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, he shared an excellent rapport with Modi, then Gujarat chief minister. However, when they fell out, they were anathema to each other and, until recently, spared no opportunity to spite
The first signs of a thaw were in August last when Nitish had gone to meet Modi in New Delhi to seek Central assistance for relief and rehabilitation of affected people in the Kosi floods. It was also an occasion for Nitish to appreciate and endorse Modi’s Namami Gange programme. Then, when, unlike all other Opposition leaders, Nitish sided with Modi’s demonetisation of high-value currency in principle in November the change was even more evident. Modi did not fail to notice that and welcomed Nitish’s stand in no uncertain terms. Nitish was indeed conspicuous by his absence in Opposition meetings to pick holes in demonetisation though some meetings had lower-level representation from Nitish’s party – the Janata Dal (United). That has been followed by the recent show of warmth between them. After the Patna airport meeting, Nitish received Modi again at Gandhi Maidan and took him to the dais. The two sat next to each other in saffron turbans and were all smiles, often laughing at each other’s words. When Nitish rose to speak, he spoke of Modi as Chief Minister of Gujarat for 12 years and of how he successfully steered prohibition in the State. Indeed, his message to those concerned was unmistakable. Modi, in turn, was full of praise for Nitish, for his personal initiative to make the Guru Gobind Singh celebrations a success, for his organisational ability and for his governance to make this mega event go on smoothly in Patna, where Sikh pilgrims from all over the country and various parts of the world had come.
It is too early to speculate that the seeming bonhomie would lead to Nitish joining the NDA again. But there is no denying that Nitish is not too comfortable with Rashtriya Janata Dal’s Lalu Prasad Yadav, his current alliance partner in Bihar. The manner in which Lalu has thrust his two sons on Nitish — one as deputy chief minister and the other as a Cabinet minister — has not gone down well with Nitish, apart from other moves of Lalu and the company he keeps with tainted toughies.
A lot would depend on how the newly-revived equation between Modi and Nitish develops and what kind of a give and take they work out if they get down to specifics.
The BJP could indeed do with a weighty ally in central politics with only the Akali Dal, the Shiv Sena and Ram Vilas Paswan’s fledgling party supporting it, and Shiv Sena being an unreliable partner, often siding with the Opposition on issues that cause acute embarrassment to the BJP. For Nitish’s party too, a foothold in Delhi could prove to be a boon which could even lead to sharing power at the Centre. But then the Janata Dal (U) would have to be prepared to be jettisoned by the substantial Muslim vote bank in Bihar, handing to Lalu on a platter. It would indeed be interesting to see if Modi and Nitish are able to keep their egos in check and forge a revived alliance that would be mutually beneficial. Nitish would really need to weigh his cards carefully and decide on the basis of perceived gains and losses. For a person who nurtures national ambitions, the BJP would, predictably be a better bet to align with than being one of the contenders of a ramshackle opposition.
It was interesting from a political perspective that Punjab chief minister and Akali Dal chief Parkash Singh Badal was on the dais in Patna with Modi and Nitish. Interestingly, the last time Modi and Nitish were publicly seen as friends, joining hands and laughing, was at a public rally hosted by Badal in Jalandhar in 2009. The question now is ‘will history repeat itself?’ Would Modi and Amit Shah, with their penchant for political strategising, be able to wean Nitish away from the Opposition and thereby puncture the credibility of an alternative to Modi and the BJP in 2019?