A DAY after Bihar Chief Minister and JD(U) chief Nitish Kumar held the Congress responsible for the “current mess in the Opposition”, both sides struck a conciliatory note Monday, although the underlying strain in their relationship remained. In Delhi, Congress spokesperson Abhishek Singhvi said “some parties” wanted to “exacerbate” his party’s differences with the JD(U) and said that the divergence over the presidential elections was “a chapter that is over”.
In Patna, Nitish described the “grand alliance” in Bihar, including the RJD and Congress, as “unbreakable”. But he also said that on the national stage, the Congress “is the biggest party in Opposition” and “has to take the initiative to set an agenda”. On Sunday, at his party’s state executive meet, Nitish had said that “it is because of the Congress that we could not have an alliance in UP, it was because of the Congress that we could not have an alliance in Assam, and the Congress did not take us into confidence during the presidential polls as well”.
Taken aback by the criticism, senior Congress leaders admitted to a “mishandling” of ties with the Bihar Chief Minister after the JD(U) decided to back NDA nominee Ram Nath Kovind in the presidential elections. While stressing that Kumar should have been “careful” since he had taken the lead in fielding a joint Opposition candidate, they said the Congress has decided to reach out to him directly in the next few days to placate him.
However, sources in both parties confirmed that there still were conflicting streams of thought. “The problem is that a strong section of the leadership, which worked with Lalu Prasad during the UPA, is comfortable with the RJD. This old school is pulling things in the other direction. Remember, the old school was averse to Nitish’s projection as the chief ministerial candidate in Bihar and it was the new school of thought that prevailed, which resulted in the election success of 2015,” a senior Congress leader told The Indian Express.
Sources in the JD(U) said a strong section in the party wants to use the NDA option to bargain for a commanding position within the united Opposition. In the Congress, a section is not averse to leveraging Lalu Prasad to rein in JD(U)’s ambitions.
But, in what is seen as an attempt to allay Congress apprehensions, Kumar said, “I have already distanced myself from the PM race.”
Speaking to reporters, the Bihar Chief Minister said, “Alternative politics is the demand of the current time. The Congress, which is the largest party in Opposition, has to take the initiative to set an agenda before the people and tell them how it wants to take the country along. I am not the Opposition candidate for Prime Minister for 2019. My priority is to fulfill my promises made to the people of Bihar. I have got a Bihar mandate.”
However, in a nuanced criticism of the Congress, he said, “At a time when the Opposition should have kept the heat on the farmers’ issue, it got embroiled in politics over the presidential polls. Talking only about unity and forging an alliance at the national level would not serve any purpose, we have to stand united on important and core issues.”
Congress leaders admitted that the party needs to “allow him (Nitish) space”. “Let’s not forget, Nitish is a leader of his own standing. He cannot be a follower. He can be a collaborator. For this, we need to allow him space. We should not forget that when Nitish was in the NDA, he used to speak to the top leadership — A B Vajpayee and L K Advani — and would not join issue with those down the chain. We need to understand this to avoid any mishandling,” said one leader.
Asked about his party leader Ghulam Nabi Azad’s remarks, which has reportedly angered Nitish, the senior leader said, “The old leadership seems to be going about it in the old way, which resulted in the mishandling”.
JD(U) leader K C Tyagi, meanwhile, said that “nobody can dictate terms on what the JD(U) should do”. “Every party has its own ideology, no party can dictate terms to another party,” said Tyagi.
Congress’s Singhvi described the alliance with the JD(U) as “very, very special”. “Whatever happened has happened, it has absolutely no effect on our relationship in Bihar… Kumar himself has said so. Our coalition is strong and stable and everybody stands by each other,” he said.