A day after he gave a miss to the meeting of the top leaders of 17 opposition parties, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar attended a lunch hosted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in honour of the visiting Mauritius Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth Saturday. Afterward, Nitish rejected as “far from the truth” speculation over his apparent bonhomie with the BJP, saying no parallels should not be drawn between the meetings of Friday and Saturday. Speaking in Patna on Friday, he had dismissed all speculation as “nothing but misinterpretation”, and argued that Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s Friday lunch invite was for the Janata Dal (United), and not for him specifically.
On Saturday, Nitish thanked Modi for agreeing to send a team of experts to Bihar for a field assessment of the problem of siltation in the Ganga before June 10 — by when the river starts to swell. He parried questions on recent allegations of corruption against relatives of Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) chief Lalu Prasad, saying he was not aware of the facts. He also declined to comment on senior RJD leader Raghuvansh Prasad Singh’s reported remark that he “possibly finds the PM’s lunches more delicious and appetising (than the opposition’s)”.
“What is the meaning of all this (speculation),” Nitish asked. “If any chief minister meets the prime minister, you make a political interpretation. This (the apparently increasing closeness with former alliance partner BJP) is your interpretation, and it is far from the truth. Where is the comparison between the two (meetings)? One of them was a political meeting. I had already met honourable Soniaji on April 30 at her invitation. We had already discussed the issues of opposition unity and the presidential election. This (the opposition meeting hosted by Sonia) was a lunch meeting, and it was decided five days in advance that Sharad Yadav ji will attend from our party.
“Today it was an invitation to a chief minister, not to the president of the JD(U). That (Friday’s invitation) was to the president of the party. Making a comparison between the two is misinterpretation,” he said.
There has been speculation that Nitish skipped the opposition meeting because he did not want to be seen in the company of Lalu. Nitish’s absence was uncomfortable for the RJD, and has given the BJP reason to suggest that the coalition government in Bihar is not stable.
Nitish said he had participated in the lunch in Jugnauth’s honour because more than half the population of that country is of Bihari origin, and has an emotional connect with the state. Besides, he had matters of Bihar’s concern to discuss with the PM, he said.
“I came here as chief minister of Bihar to attend the lunch for the Mauritius PM and to apprise the prime minister of the problems of the state. I thank the prime minister. He has said that the (Ganga) team will visit Bihar before June 10.”
On Raghuvansh Prasad Singh’s reported comment, Nitish said “I do not know who spoke what or raised what question. Ours is an alliance with the RJD and Congress. We have got the mandate, and are running the government together. We have to solve the problems of the state. You are unnecessarily dragging the RJD into this. What has the RJD said? We talk daily, meet daily. What will I comment on somebody saying something? I do not do that.”
The JD(U) has of late been ignoring the remarks of Raghuvansh Prasad Singh, making a statement about Singh’s importance in the RJD.
On recent alleged scandals involving Lalu’s kin, and raids on some of their alleged properties in the NCR, Nitish said, “I have no knowledge of the facts of the case, and it is not appropriate to comment. I do not comment on allegations and counter-allegations”. Asked if his government would last its full term, Nitish shot back, “Do you see any difficulty? You are thinking all this unnecessarily.”
A senior JD(U) leader said it was “sheer coincidence” that the opposition meeting and the PM’s lunch took place on consecutive days. JD(U) national spokesperson KC Tyagi said, “People are reading too much into two events that are not connected. It was the Mauritius PM who had desired Nitish Kumar’s presence during his meeting with India’s PM Narendra Modi. This meeting was pre-scheduled.”
Asked why Nitish chose to pass up the opportunity to present a picture of emerging opposition unity, Tyagi said Nitish had already met Sonia, and “he is scheduled to attend the June 3 DMK rally in Chennai”.
Speaking privately, leaders of both the BJP and RJD, however, complained it was typical of Nitish Kumar to send out “confusing signals” to both the ruling and opposition camps and, in the process, “boost his political importance at the national level”.
“When Nitish was with us, he had announced before the 2009 Lok Sabha polls that he would support any party that gave Bihar special category status. He had accompanied then union minister P Chidambaram to Sadakat Ashram, the Bihar Congress headquarters, and had supported Pranab Mukherjee for president in 2012 over his then alliance partners’ choice, P A Sangma,” a senior BJP leader said.
An RJD leader said: “Nitish Kumar supported demonetisation and the surgical strikes at the expense of opposition unity. He also did not agree with us on the EVM matter. He has mastered the art of causing confusion and gaining politically. His absence from the opposition meeting is being discussed more than what actually happened at that meeting. It is possible that this is what he desired.”
This leader, who requested anonymity, said the RJD, despite being the senior partner in the grand alliance, had been pushed to the defensive because of the recent IT raids, and the notice served on Lalu’s daughter and Rajya Sabha MP Misa Bharti.