JD(U) leader Nitish Kumar extended a personal invite to Prime Minister Narendra Modi for a ceremony in Patna on November 20 where he would take oath as Bihar’s chief minister following a crushing electoral victory over the BJP.
Modi, however, politely expressed his inability to attend as he leaves for Malaysia the same evening. According to sources, soon after he received Kumar’s invitation, the PM called up parliamentary affairs minister Venkaiah Naidu and asked him to represent the central government at the event.
The invite on Tuesday night came against the backdrop of a bitter rivalry between Modi and Kumar spanning nearly a decade with the two leaders repeatedly locking horns during an acrimonious election campaign.
But Modi congratulated Kumar after the JD (U) leader led the avowedly secular Mahagathbandhan, or Grand Alliance, to a spectacular victory, winning 178 of the state’s 243 assembly seats.
Analysts said Kumar’s invitation could be a show of statesmanship amid speculation that he may be projected as a national alternative to Modi in the 2019 parliamentary polls by the BJP’s rivals.
Sources said during their phone conversation, Modi again congratulated Kumar and promised all-round help for Bihar’s development. Naidu will also take minister of state (independent charge) Rajiv Pratap Rudy, who’s an MP from Bihar, along with him for the swearing-in function in accordance with the PM’s instructions.
Naidu had plans to visit rain-battered Chennai and other areas but Modi asked the senior minister to be present at the ceremony, said sources.
JD(U) president Basistha Narayan Singh said inviting the Prime Minister was political etiquette.
Kumar and Modi have shared an uneasy relationship that goes back more than 15 years. Observers say the JD(U) leader dissuaded members of the BJP from allowing Modi, then Gujarat’s chief minister, to campaign in the 2005 and 2010 assembly polls when the parties were in an alliance.
In June 2010, Kumar famously cancelled a dinner hosted for BJP leaders after posters appeared in Patna showing him holding hands with Modi, which he purportedly felt wouldn’t go down well with his Muslim supporters.
Modi’s elevation as the BJP’s campaign chief for last year’s general elections led to the Bihar CM walking out of the 17-year-old alliance in June 2013, only to be decimated in the Lok Sabha polls, managing to win just two seats.
But Kumar made a now-famous comeback, decimating the BJP in the state polls where Modi led the saffron campaign from the front.
The oath-taking ceremony of the Nitish Kumar-led Grand Alliance government at the historic Gandhi Maidan on Friday is billed to be a mega event for forces opposed to Modi’s brand of politics.
With chief ministers Arvind Kejriwal from Delhi, Mamata Bannerjee from West Bengal and Akhilesh Yadav from Uttar Pradesh confirming their attendance, as well as acceptance of invite by leaders like Farooq Abdullah and DMK bigwig MK Stalin, there is a clear indication that Kumar is trying to build a “back-up”, as the JD (U) leader puts it, at the national level of parties opposed to Modi.
Kejriwal and Banerjee had openly supported Kumar in his fight against the BJP and had extended a call to ensure his return to power.
Invitations have also been extended to other non-BJP chief ministers including Odisha’s Naveen Patnaik, Assam’s Tarun Gogai as well as Chandrababu Naidu from Andhra Pradesh.
The list of invitees also includes Mulayam Singh Yadav, who played a key role in the declaration of Kumar as the face of the Janata Parivar parties, but broke away to form a Third Front ahead of the polls, as well as his bête noire in UP politics, Mayawati.
RJD chief Lalu Prasad’s “Samadhi” Shivpal Singh has also been invited. Sources indicated Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray had also received an invite.
However, there are murmurs in JD(U) ally RJD which is reportedly unhappy with certain leaders being invited.