There are no permanent friends or enemies in politics, only interests. Last week, Patna witnessed a coalition of opportunistic interests and a clash of confederate priorities when Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar shared a dais. Nitish’s allies Lalu and the Congress party were kept away from the elevated symbolism of platform politics.
Both political leaders are experts in playing mind games with each other, as well as with their associates. Though Nitish hasn’t moved beyond Patna Politics, he has acquired a national stature through his posturing against Modi and the Sangh Parivar. During the past three years, both have made it a point to keep their hot-and-cold relationship as the fulcrum around which their conflicting national interests revolved—one to sustain and the other to capture power.
At a time when Mamata Banerjee and Arvind Kejriwal, along with some opposition parties, are forging an anti-Modi alliance, it would suit the PM if the Prince of Patna kept his fraternal distance. Perception is power play—when they whisper in each other’s ears, the minds of their friends and foes are blown. Last week, when they participated in the customary address to celebrate the 350th Anniversary of Guru Govind Singh held in Bihar’s capital, they disrupted the national political narrative. Whether they have kissed and made up is known only to them. But the political establishment and the media have spun their own interpretative yarns. They describe the Modi-Nitish encounter as the beginning of a new political re-alignment at the state and the national level.
A religious function is hardly a forum for mutual backslapping. But Nitish set the tone by describing the alcohol ban in Gujarat as an example of decisive action. He declared, “Drugs and alcohol are dangerous for society. It destroys the lives of people. Before Bihar, the Gujarat government implemented it. The PM before taking up his post was the CM of Gujarat and he implemented prohibition. The ban is still going strong. Bihar will also set an example to the nation.” Modi returned his frenemy’s compliment with a patently sugar-coated response. Praising Nitish for enforcing prohibition in Bihar, the prime minister remarked, “Nitish ji has taken a very significant step. Bringing social change is not an easy task. Despite facing difficulties, what Nitish ji has done is worthy enough to be praised. I congratulate him and hope that the people of Bihar will win the fight against alcoholism... This is not Nitish Kumar’s struggle alone. This is a battle, which the whole state of Bihar needs to fight. Everyone should take the resolve of turning Bihar alcohol-free. I believe Nitish Kumar will succeed due to the blessings of Guru Gobind Singh Maharaj.”
Power is a seasonal phenomenon, and mellowness was suddenly in the air once both Nitish and Modi came to power in their respective domains after protracted attrition. They refrained from attacking each other or raking up confrontationist issues. Ever since Nitish became Bihar’s CM in 2015, he has abjured vocal opposition to the prime minister and his policies. This was a marked departure from his previous preference for blaming the Centre for denying special status to the state. In the first few months of Modi’s tenure, Nitish has been all sound and fury while charging New Delhi with ignoring Bihar’s legitimate economic interests. But ever since the autumn of 2016, Nitish’s new political romance with the prime minister became apparent. Examples:
*In March last year, the PM visited Bihar in connection with a Patna High Court function. Both took a helicopter ride together. Modi defied protocol and walked up to his former Public Enemy No. 1, who was seated a few chairs away. Later on, the PM described his erstwhile foe as his mitra (friend). In response, Nitish’s subsequent speech avoided all mention of the `1.70 lakh crore financial package he had sworn to wrest from the Centre—a plank on which he had won the polls. Further, he praised Modi for his cooperative federalism.
*A few months later, Nitish expressed his wish to travel with the PM to Lumbini, Nepal, to attend the Buddha Purnima function to be held on May 21. Nepal had also invited the Chinese president and the UN secretary general. Nitish wrote a formal letter to Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj communicating his desire to be a part of the PM’s delegation. Though the function was cancelled later, the overture signalled a change in their hostile relationship.
*On demonetisation, Nitish has taken a stand in favour of the PM while many of his senior party leaders are strongly opposed to the move. In spite of Nitish being the Janata Dal (United) president, he has made it a point not to join Opposition protests against the note ban. According to published reports, both leaders have been holding informal consultations and meetings on various national issues. Nitish had declared that he would review his views on demonetisation after December 30. Even though 10 days have passed since the deadline expired, he hasn’t changed his views.
*Nitish has so far not accepted Punjab Congress chief Amarinder Singh’s invitation to join the poll campaign of secular parties. Migrant labour from Bihar plays a decisive role in affecting the electoral outcome in at least 25 seats, in half the districts of Punjab.
The message from Pataliputra reveals a new Manifesto of Mindsets. Modi considers Nitish an important instrument for the success of his Congress-mukt Bharat mission. If he is able to create friction in the Grand Alliance with his excessive flirtation with Nitish, the latter will need the BJP for his political survival. With a total strength of 128 seats in a house of 243, the BJP and the JD (U) enjoy a comfortable majority in the Bihar Assembly.
Currently, Nitish is dependent on the Congress and the Lalu-led Rashtriya Janata Dal. By winning over a credible CM like Nitish, the PM can dent the united opposition’s armour. With 14 states under NDA’s direct or indirect control, Modi can implement his agenda with the help of other CMs from Odisha, Tamil Nadu and a couple of Northeastern states. Nitish, on the other hand, can bargain for better financial support from the Centre and ensure better delivery to those who voted for him. Lalu is a staunch Congress supporter and Modi-basher.
His party is already annoyed with the chief minister for not letting a Yadav share the stage with the PM. If the seating arrangement at a government function can cause tremours in the ruling coalition of Bihar, imagine the damage a frequent exchange of bouquets and badinage between the PM and the CM can cause! Modi and Nitish may be separated by the chasm of their national ambitions, but seem to be made for each other in the political bartering of mutual rewards.
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