Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar on Saturday met Rahul Gandhi in Delhi, and then dropped by for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s farewell dinner for outgoing President Pranab Mukherjee, keeping up the suspense over his overtures to the BJP. The Congress was tight-lipped over what transpired at the meeting between Rahul and Nitish, coming after days of tension in the alliance over his support to the NDA’s presidential pick Ram Nath Kovind, and amid strained ties between him and the RJD over corruption cases.
“The two leaders had a meeting. I was there, I can say only this much,” was the brief response of AICC general secretary in-charge for Bihar C P Joshi on the Rahul-Nitish talks. Sources, however, said that the turmoil in the Bihar Mahagathbandhan was discussed at length during the 40-minute-long meeting, including the corruption charges against RJD chief Lalu Prasad’s family, with Rahul impressing upon Nitish the need to save the alliance. The two also discussed the issue of larger Opposition unity.
“The current political situation and Opposition unity were the centre of discussion. After all when two senior leaders are meeting at a time when there are problems in the alliance, these will be discussed,” a source said.
After his meeting with Rahul, Nitish drove to the residence of Kovind, the President-elect, at 10, Akbar Road, and then to the house of senior party leader Sharad Yadav. The two JD(U) leaders were closeted together for an hour.
In the evening, Nitish attended Modi’s farewell dinner for Mukherjee, with the JD(U) citing their “special relationship”. Naveen Patnaik, whose BJD also supported Kovind, was among the handful of other CMs present at the dinner. The other invitees included Kovind, Vice-President Hamid Ansari, the NDA’s vice-presidential candidate M Venkaiah Naidu, former prime minister Manmohan Singh, Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha Ghulam Nabi Azad, BJP chief Amit Shah, party veterans L K Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi, and Union ministers Sushma Swaraj, Arun Jaitley and Ram Vilas Paswan.
Nitish will also attend Kovind’s oath-taking ceremony on Tuesday. JD(U) leader K C Tyagi stressed that too much should not be read into Nitish attending the dinner, pointing out that Nitish had backed Mukherjee for president in 2012 despite being in the NDA at the time and that he shared a “special relationship” with the outgoing President. As such it is “natural for Kumar to attend a dinner hosted in honour of the outgoing President”, Tyagi said. It was also “natural” for Nitish to attend Kovind’s oath-taking as Nitish had backed his candidature, Tyagi said.
Breaking away from the Opposition ranks to back Kovind, Nitish had argued he was doing so as Kovind had been Bihar governor and had never created hurdles for his government in the state. Rahul had been abroad when Nitish had openly expressed his displeasure with Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad’s remarks doubting his intentions in backing Kovind. Later, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul had personally talked to Nitish.
On its part, the JD(U) supported the Opposition’s nominee for vice-president, Gopalkrishna Gandhi. At that time it was decided that when Nitish comes to the national capital to attend his party’s National Executive on July 23, he would meet Rahul. While the JD(U) National Executive was later put off to August 19, Nitish kept the appointment with Rahul.
While the Congress would have hoped that Rahul and Nitish’s meeting on Saturday would send out the message that all was well in the Grand Alliance, the tension at the ground level between the JD(U) and RJD is keeping the pot boiling. JD(U) spokesperson Ajay Alok said on Friday that his party’s patience was being tested and asked why the person who has to answer is keeping mum.
With the RJD not agreeable to the resignation of Tejashwi Prasad Yadav, who is facing corruption charges, and sections in the Congress backing Lalu, a section in the JD(U) feels that it is not time, yet, for them to burn any of their bridges.
The party, however, believes that the developments in the past 15 days, culminating in the Nitish-Rahul meeting on Saturday, indicate that the scales may be shifting in the Congress in its ties with Lalu. A larger chunk in the Congress is now more favourable towards Nitish, a JD(U) leader said.
In Patna, BJP leader Sushil Kumar Modi said Nitish was “wasting time” meeting Rahul, adding that the Congress vice-president had failed to make his own party Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh in Himachal Pradesh resign after he was chargesheeted by the CBI.