A few hours before Vijay Rupani took oath as the Chief Minister of Gujarat on Tuesday, 26 December, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar boarded a special aircraft at 2.30 am from Jaya Prakash Narayan International Airport in Patna to reach Ahmedabad.
A Chief Minister attending the swearing-in function of another CM is no news. But someone of Nitish’s stature taking a 2.30 am flight from Patna (where no flight operates late night) to reach Gujarat did raise many an eyebrow.
Was he the same Nitish, who, till six months ago, would trash the Gujarat model of governance, abhor the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and other saffron fringe groups, and was seen as a potential challenger to Narendra Modi in 2019?
Before July 2017, when he crossed over the fence for greener, sorry saffron, pastures, many political scientists had written how Nitish was far more competent than the present crop of politicians and could have become the focal point of index of Opposition unity, had he stayed put.
But sadly enough, Nitish was one among the array of CMs rubbing shoulders while attending the BJP jamboree in Gujarat.
This was arguably Nitish’s first visit to Gujarat after 2003, where he last went as Railway Minister (in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s Cabinet). Some called it an “end of the 14 year vanwas.” Others in the saffron camp dubbed it, “life has come a full circle for Nitish.”
“During his 2003 visit to Kutch to inaugurate a railway project, Nitish had showered encomiums on Narendra Modi, who was the then Gujarat Chief Minister. Nitish said that Modi was a development-oriented leader and predicted that he (the Gujarat CM) was a potential national leader,” reminisced a senior BJP legislator.
From 2010 to 2017, reams of newsprint went into describing Nitish’s rivalry with Modi. This started in 2010 when Nitish returned the Rs 5 crore cheque that Modi had offered for Kosi flood relief, simply because of an advertisement row in which Modi was seen holding Nitish’s hand. So miffed was Nitish with the ad that he cancelled the dinner he had planned at his official residence for top BJP leaders in June 2010.
Such was the aura of Nitish in those days that not a single top BJP leader, including Advani, dared to question the JD(U) strongman about the humiliation inflicted on the entire BJP leadership.
Such was his animosity for Modi that later in 2010, Nitish banned Modi’s entry in Bihar and won a landslide in the November Assembly elections (seven years ago).
Their ties worsened when Nitish dumped the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in June 2013 after Modi was projected the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate for 2014 Lok Sabha polls, during the BJP’s national council meet in Goa (in June 2013).
Worse was still to come. A day after the Lok Sabha results were declared in 2014, Nitish went to Raj Bhawan and resigned. Officially, he explained that he was taking moral responsibility for the party’s drubbing as the JD(U) won merely two seats out of 40 Lok Sabha constituencies in Bihar, while the NDA bagged 31. This included BJP’s 22, Ram Vilas Paswan’s LJP six, and three for the Upendra Kushwaha’s newly-floated outfit Rashtriya Lok Samata Party (RLSP).
It was then widely believed that Nitish resigned not while taking moral responsibility, but to save himself from the embarrassment of receiving a person (Modi as PM) at the airport for whom his hatred was well known.
Their rivalry reached its zenith during the 2015 Bihar Assembly elections. In this round of one-upmanship, Nitish gave Modi a crushing and decisive defeat, with the help of his friend-turned-foe-turned-friend Lalu Prasad Yadav.
Had Lalu’s support base not been there, Nitish would have been into political oblivion by now. Bihar’s political history shows that Nitish had always used crutches to cling to power. Either the BJP or the RJD-Congress combine. Otherwise, despite being an erudite politician (he is an electrical engineer from Bihar College of Engineering, now called NIT, Patna), a good orator, and a suave leader, Nitish does not enjoy a mass base. This he realised in the 1995 Assembly election when he formed the Samata Party with the help of veteran socialist George Fernandes and contested on its own. Samata Party could win merely seven seats out of 324 constituencies in undivided Bihar.
But this was 22 years ago. In 2017, Nitish’s bonhomie with the BJP was witnessed again when Prime Minister Modi, during his Patna visit to attend the 350th birth anniversary of Guru Gobind Singh, profusely praised Nitish for enforcing liquor ban in Bihar. Nitish reciprocated the gesture and the ball for ‘new ties’ was set rolling, although it was Nitish who, in September 2016, laid the foundation of his new equation with Modi when he praised the PM for surgical strike and then in November 2016 backed Modi on the issue of demonetisation.
Mamata Banerjee, who then visited Patna to protest demonetisation, dubbed Nitish a ‘traitor’ for breaking ranks with other Opposition parties on the issue.
However, neither the Congress nor an astute Lalu could sense what was in the store. The rest, as they say, is history.
Had Nitish wished, he could have easily written a new chapter in political history. But much to the disappointment of his supporters, he has preferred to play second fiddle to the Modi-Shah combine for reasons only best known to him.
(The writer is a Bihar-based journalist. The views mentioned in the article are that of the writer. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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