Once sworn enemies, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar seem to be finding more and more common ground these days, setting tongues wagging in Patna and New Delhi.
Kumar's unequivocal support of Modi's demonetisation drive stands in sharp contrast to his party's aggressive stand in Parliament against the scrapping of old banknotes, and is the latest in a series of statements and instances where the PM and the CM seem to be on the same boat.
"In the beginning, people might face some inconvenience but taking everything into account, it would yield positive results," Kumar, who is also the national president of JD (U) said on November 9, a day after the PM announced the scrapping of notes, even while the rest of the Opposition were up in arms.
A week later, as the Opposition including his JDU was stalling Parliament over the issue, Kumar reiterated his stand. Speaking at a function in Madhubani, he said: "I am in favour of the decision to demonetise Rs 1,000 and Rs 500 notes, which will help end 'do number ka dhanda' (illegal business)."
The meeting point on demonetization was just the latest. In recent past, Kumar's statements on the Uri attacks and the surgical strikes against Pakistan were in line with the PM's claims. While the Opposition tried to corner the government for being unprepared for the fidayeen attack, Kumar said one should avoid "such discussion" that how terrorists sneaked in. "Terrorism is one issue where we should be united and refrain from finding fault with each other," he said, to the delight of BJP leaders.
Even before Uri, political pundits had noticed how PM Modi has started quoting Kumar during his speeches. Sources said that at the meeting of the National Integration Council recently, the PM quoted Kumar five times during the course of his speech and added that his suggestions were good. The only other CM to find mention in the PM's speech was Andhra Pradesh chief minister and NDA partner Chandrababu Naidu.
Kumar has also unequivocally offered his support to the government's move for a Goods and Services Tax Constitution Amendment Bill.
Kumar is also now part of a committee to commemorate the birth centenary of RSS ideologue and mentor Deendayal Upadhyaya, organised by the Centre on September 25. For a politician who once called for an "RSS-mukt Bharat", Kumar's acceptance of a chair to commemorate the centenary of one of the patron saints of Hindutva was seen as an ideological departure.
However, Kumar's pointsman in New Delhi, and senior JD (U) leader, KC Tyagi said there was nothing wrong in being part of a committee to commemorate Deendayal Upadhyay.
"Ram Manohar Lohia (the father figure for socialists in India) and Deen Dayal Upadhyaya were the architects of the non-Congress movement in 1950s and 1960s. In the first non-Congress governments formed in 1967 in nine states, socialists were in alliance with the Jan Sangh (ideological processor of BJP), so were the Communists. EMS Namboodiripad (Communist leader), Lohia, Jai Prakash Narayan (socialist doyen) and Upadhyaya are respected by all sections of the society and everyone celebrates their birthdays. There is no harm in it. Ideologically we disagree," he told News18.
UNEASY TIES IN PAST
Kumar has worked with BJP in the past. He was a Union minister and his party was part of the BJP-led NDA government from 1998 to 2004. Later, at the state level, he formed a coalition government with BJP with him as Chief Minister in 2005.
What led to a split between the two parties was the uneasy relationship between Kumar and Modi.
Kumar had ensured that Modi did not campaign in Bihar while he was CM of Gujarat. In June 2013, a week after Modi was anointed as the campaign committee chairman of BJP ahead of 2014 Lok Sabha polls; Kumar ended the 17-year-old alliance. He was prepared for anything and determined to send a message of his secular credentials.
Kumar paid the price for the political fallout the next year when his party was reduced to just two seats as a 'Modi wave' swept the Lok Sabha elections. But, he recovered and won the state election in 2015 with a new coalition partner, the RJD.
However, a state government needs a friendly Centre. Kumar understands this basic principle of governance well. Ever since he took charge of the state in November 2014 for the fifth time, Kumar has made several trips to New Delhi.
A political functionary close to Kumar, on the condition of anonymity, said, "Personal bitterness between Kumar and Modi isn't there on the surface. They both look comfortable with each other. There is smoothness in functioning."
"It's not about the JD (U)-BJP but only about Modi-Nitish," he said.
JIBES FROM RJD
Apart from the logic of governance, compulsions of realpolitik could also be at play here. It's no great secret in Patna that there is tension in the 'Mahagatbandhan' between Kumar and his ally Lalu Prasad Yadav of the RJD. In the two weeks since 'Siwan's Don' and RJD leader Mohammed Shahabuddin walked out of jail, there were a series of comments by the don-turned-politician challenging Kumar's leadership.
"What's upsetting Nitish more is not what Shahbuddin has been saying but a series of jibes from RJD Vice-President Raghuvansh Prasad Singh," a leader told CNN News18.
The source said Kumar feels that these comments from Singh could have the sanction of Lalu Yadav. Singh not only went on record to say that Kumar's PM ambitions maybe misplaced, he also called his alcohol prohibition law draconian.
Sources said Kumar is worried about his image of 'vikas purush' being dented by the constant headlines of deteriorating law and order in Bihar. He doesn't want his pet idea to be hijacked by this.
Kumar may have settled the super chief minister debate through the Bihar Vikas Mission but knows well the high handedness with which Yadav and his party are capable of operating. Kumar did enjoy a good working relationship with the BJP in the state and his personal equation with Finance minister Arun Jaitley is known in the political circles of New Delhi.
Nitish's allies in the grand Opposition in New Delhi – from the Left to the TMC – are watching all this keenly. That Nitish chose to skip the grand silver jubilee celebration of the Samajwadi Party in Lucknow early this month hasn't gone unnoticed in Opposition circles.
As things stand, despite the newfound bonhomie between the PM and the CM, no one suspects any tangible political alliance in the offing timed for 2019 General Elections, which are more than two years away. But politics, as they say, is the art of the possible.
Watch this space.