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Nitish-Lalu spat: 2013 script being replayed, have you seen this movie before?

Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar’s recent moves have allies, the Congress and the RJD, worried and the BJP hoping for a reunion.

india Updated: Jul 06, 2017 12:55 IST
Kumar Uttam
Allies and rivals are keeping a close watch on Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar’s next move after he  and the Congress clashed over his decision to back NDA’s presidential candidate Ram Nath Kovind.
Allies and rivals are keeping a close watch on Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar’s next move after he and the Congress clashed over his decision to back NDA’s presidential candidate Ram Nath Kovind.(PTI photo)

Bihar chief minister and Janata Dal (United) leader Nitish Kumar is at it again -- flirting with rivals and keeping allies on toes.

His recent moves and utterances have his partners, the Congress and Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), guessing his next move even as he has the BJP imagining a reunion.

“He is certainly keeping a window open,” a BJP leader told HT on Wednesday.

The BJP has a reason to hope and his partners to despair.

There seems to be a pattern when the 66-year-old socialist veteran starts distancing himself from allies. His split with the BJP in 2013 came after a series of actions targeted at party leaders, something similar to what is going on now.

Kumar’s senior party colleague KC Tyagi recently set tongues wagging when he said the JD(U) was more comfortable in the NDA than in the grand alliance, the ruling coalition in Bihar.

“I meant NDA of Atal Bihari Vajpayee,” Tyagi later said. “We are not comfortable with the present BJP.” But the clarification failed to convince the partners.

The Congress and the RJD are sceptical about the new-found warmth in Kumar-BJP ties. The Bihar leader has broken ranks to back the BJP’s candidate in the July 17 presidential election. He was also the first chief minister to back the demonetisation decision of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was severely criticised by the rest of the opposition for scrapping 500 and 1,000 rupee banknotes.

In May, Kumar skipped a lunch hosted by Congress chief Sonia Gandhi but broke bread with Modi and Mauritian Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth the next day.

There are more similarities.

In 2012, Kumar chose to back Congress-led UPA’s presidential candidate Pranab Mukherjee over PA Sangma, who was chosen by the BJP-led NDA in which he was a senior partner.

In May next year, a month before breaking ties with the BJP, Kumar travelled with finance minister P Chidambaram from Rajgir to Patna and dropped the senior Congress leader at Sadakat Ashram, the Congress’ headquarters in Bihar. For a leader who championed anti-Congressism, the step was a giant leap.

Congress insiders claim that party vice-president Rahul Gandhi liked Kumar’s governance model even when he was with the NDA and used to praise the Bihar chief minister in party meetings.

The divorce happened in June 2013 when the BJP named Narendra Modi the chairman of its campaign committee for 2014 Lok Sabha election, which virtually made him the PM candidate.

The bitterness played out in Bihar during the 2015 state election. Modi’s BJP was humiliated by Kumar, who halted the party’s victory march in Bihar a year after his JD(U) was decimated in the parliamentary election.

Two years at the helm, with the backing of the RJD and Congress, Kumar is getting jittery.

He feels the Congress is not serious enough to provide an alternative narrative to the BJP. “The JD(U) suggested a Bharat Bandh on the issue of agrarian crisis. It did not get any response from the Congress,” sources close to Kumar told HT.

The Congress continues to be ambiguous on a greater role for the Bihar chief minister in the 2019 parliamentary election.

Lalu Prasad is asserting himself even as his children – one of them is Kumar’s deputy while another is a Bihar minister — face corruption charges.

“I will not like to comment on it,” Bihar BJP leader Sushil Kumar Modi told media on Wednesday on being asked if something was brewing between his party and Kumar’s.