After a bitterly-fought 2015 Bihar elections, the bonhomie shown between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar at a gathering on Saturday may well have looked unusual, but both leaders – masters of playing mind games, especially with each other – sounded politically correct.
The PM did not want to pass off as a sore loser and the Bihar CM did not want to display any arrogance of one who has drawn level with his arch rival after the 2014 Lok Sabha polls where the JD (U) was pretty much decimated.
It’s strange, but true, that it has always been Narendra Modi who made the first move in his ice-and-fire relationship with Nitish Kumar. In a 2009 rally in Ludhiana, Modi had walked over to Nitish Kumar’s seat to hold their hands aloft – the picture that triggered JD(U) parting ways with BJP in June 2013 after a period of 17 years.
On Saturday, it was Narendra Modi, now Prime Minister, who once again approached Nitish Kumar at a Patna High Court function as the sitting arrangement – as per protocol – had left some distance between the two dignitaries. The bonhomie took off from there, as they shared a helicopter ride from Patna to Hajipur.
The crowd cheered their togetherness at Hajipur, where they sat together, much to the amazement of photojournalists. Nitish, who could have thought of reminding the Prime Minister of his Rs 1.65 lakh crore special package, announced during his rally in Ara while campaigning for the Assembly polls, did not raise it and limited his speech to the praise of the Modi government’s cooperation. He went a step further and invited the Prime Minister to visit Bihar over and over again. On his part, Modi addressed Nitish as a ‘mitra’.
It appears as if PM Modi wants to put the Bihar drubbing behind and that he wants to win over Nitish, who has now emerged as a nucleus of anti-Modi politics. Having faced stiff resistance from Opposition quarters over the suicide of Rohith Vemula and the arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar, Modi sees all the merits in befriending senior leaders from the Opposition camp.
However, Bihar is still not a lost cause for the BJP. Now the principal opponent, the BJP had forced three political heavyweights of the past and present – Congress, RJD and JD (U) – to rally against it. BJP can take heart from the fact that it got 1.10 cr votes – the same number that had got NDA 31 Lok Sabha seats in 2014. BJP wants to cultivate Bihar and does not want an impression of being an inimical centre. This is where the Nitish-Modi friendship bodes well for what they call “cooperative federalism”.
Nitish, for his part, looks to keep his political options open. Aware that he is a potential third front face for the PM post in 2019, pragmatic politics keeps Nitish grounded in the fact that JD (U), on its own, cannot dream big. Nitish would also love to keep his senior alliance partner – RJD – in check. He wants to stick to the good governance plank, which, of late, has been marred by the murder of two politicians from the Opposition camp.
For Lalu, Nitish’s closeness to Modi is always disconcerting, even if it is symbolic. While the BJP wants to do a balancing act between its agenda and reaching out to opponents, Nitish would prefer to keep people guessing. The more Lalu remains confused about Nitish, the better it is for him.