Bihar Chief Minister and Janata Dal (United) chief Nitish Kumar is turning out to be a cannier politician than previously imagined, reaffirming the anti-BJP coalition with RJD's Lalu Yadav and the Congress on the one hand, and making overtures to his former political enemy, the BJP, on the other, thereby signalling to his coalition partners not to take him for granted.
For the first time since he broke with the BJP in 2013, walking out of the NDA after 17 years and making his distaste for then-Prime Ministerial contender Narendra Modi very public, Nitish Kumar seems to be flirting with the Prime Minister again.
Needless to add, the public affection between the two is making the Congress as well as the RJD more than a little unsettled. But this is precisely what the Bihar Chief Minister wants, which is to keep all sides guessing as well as distracted, even as he deals with measures like the tough ban on alcohol he imposed on the state some six months ago.
Senior JD(U) leaders these days sound both exhilarated as well as a tad nervous. Exhilarated because Nitish's moves have had the effect of keeping him and the party in the national spotlight, despite the consuming interest in the outcome of the filial quarrel in the Samajwadi Party and how it will impact on the coming polls in Uttar Pradesh. And nervous because they realize that Nitish Kumar's balancing act between the BJP and the others is a dangerous one and has its limits. One false move and the whole "Chanakya-niti
" of playing all sides premised on the maxim that "there are no permanent friends in politics, only interests" could come crashing down.
For the time being, though, the exhilaration is winning. Party Secretary-General KC Tyagi insisted that all continues to be well in the Maha Gathbandhan
(Grand Alliance), pointing out that none other than Lalu Prasad Yadav put a tilak
or curd on Nitish's forehead at the 'dahi-chura
' traditional lunch at his residence on Saturday. Tyagi explained that the anointing of another with curd, a tradition on the festival of Makar Sankranti
, is akin to cementing a blood tie.
He said he had recently spent several hours with Nitish Kumar in Patna "discussing current issues" and knew for a fact that there was no question of the JD(U) breaking away from the grand alliance in Bihar or politically realigning itself with the BJP in any way.
has decided that he will campaign alongside the Patidar leader Hardik Patel against the BJP in Saurashtra later in the year before Gujarat goes to the polls. Is that a sign of Nitish Kumar breaking with the Maha Gathbandhan
and leaning in favour of the BJP?" Tyagi asked.
Moreover, he said, the Bihar Chief Minister had made it clear that he was in favour of opposition unity in Uttar Pradesh against the BJP, because of the make-or-break importance of this election on national politics.
Tyagi also pooh-poohed suggestions that Lalu Yadav was upset at being asked to sit on the floor during the celebrations for Guru Gobind Singh's 350th birth anniversary in Patna earlier this month, especially when both Modi and Nitish sat next to each other on the dais. "That was simply to do with Prime Ministerial protocol, nothing else. Lalu ji
remains a deeply valued partner in the Maha Gathbandhan
," Tyagi said.
But the fact that the JD(U) leadership is being asked to explain the meaning as well as the nuance behind the moves between the Bihar Chief Minister and the Prime Minister, JD(U) leaders admit privately, is a cause for concern.
They agree that Nitish Kumar's invitation to Bihar BJP leaders like Sushil Modi and others for Makar Sankranti
lunch on Sunday - for the first time since Nitish walked out of the NDA in 2013 - is significant, even if it was explained away as a perfectly harmless occasion for antagonists to dissolve old suspicions and meet together to celebrate the end of winter. "We thought it a good time not to let old animosities remain for so long," said one JD(U) leader who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The lunch was cancelled at the last minute because the government was mourning the boat tragedy in which more than 20 people have been killed. But the fact remains that the invite to the BJP was sent, it was accepted, and the Congress party chief in Bihar was critical of Nitish Kumar in this regard.
The Congress criticism made the JD(U) leader see red. "It is okay when their leader, Rahul Gandhi, goes to meet the Prime Minister in Delhi, especially on a day when the opposition had united on the question of demonetization in parliament (on December 16), thereby threatening to fracture opposition unity," he said, testily.
"But it's not okay when Nitish ji
praises the demonetization move by the PM because he believed that it was a good idea to break the back of the black money economy," the JD(U) leader added.
Analysts in Bihar believe that the jostling for the 2019 elections has already begun. And that the space for Leader of the Opposition is wide open.
"We all know that we can't do without the Congress in any national election. But the question is, can the Congress take it for granted that it will be the pivot in any and every Opposition alliance?" asked a JD(U) leader.
Some others feel the BJP is adding both colour and spice to what are essentially harmless invitations in courtesy. For example, it had said it would join the human chain against alcohol use that Nitish Kumar is promoting across Bihar on January 21, for which Indian Space Research Organisation is said to be preparing to take satellite photos so that the Bihar CM can send them for a world record application for the "longest human chain in the world."
But other JD(U) leaders also see a deeper design in the extraordinarily keen responses of the BJP. "They want to show that there is some khitpit
, some minor discomfort, in the alliance in Bihar and that things between Lalu and Nitish aren't going as well as they should," said one leader. He agreed that "perception is everything in politics" and that the BJP is playing on the fact that Nitish Kumar is no stranger to the NDA, having been part of it for 17 long years.
Clearly, with the all-important polls in five states nearer every day, the illusion-substance continuum will change alongside. The stakes for the ruling party as well as the divided opposition have only become higher.(Jyoti Malhotra has been a journalist for several years and retains an especial passion for dialogue and debate across South Asia.)Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.