Finding ‘NiMo’: Frenemies in Indian Politics

Rahul Gandhi would do well to remember that those who have shifted camps multiple times can always do so again.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. Credit: PTI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar. Credit: PTI

When Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi today expressed his angst at Janata Dal (United) president and Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar simply walking out of the mahagathbandhan or grand coalition, which he had so assiduously stitched together in the state ahead of the assembly elections in 2015, his pain was understandable – for the grand old party has of late being making overtures to all ‘secular’ parties to put up a united front against the BJP. But while expressing his views on Nitish, Rahul would do well to restrain himself for, as history shows us, in politics there are no friends or enemies, only opportunists.

There can be no better example of this than the love-hate-love relationship shared by Nitish with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. There relationship is best describes as that of a ‘frenemy’ or a person with whom one is friendly, despite a fundamental dislike or rivalry.

Once holding Modi in high esteem, Nitish changed his views in the wake of the 2002 Gujarat riots, even going so far as to end his 17-year alliance with the NDA after it chose Modi to lead its charge in the 2014 general elections and then becoming a bitter critic in the prime minister’s first year at the helm.

Yet Modi, the shrewd politician that he is, never let their relationship sour beyond a point. He kept wooing Nitish. The result however, is for everyone to see.

Another trait of Modi, which other opposition political parties would do well to remember, is that he never used harsh words when talking of Nitish. In the run up to the 2014 elections, all he said as a means to disparage Nitish was to ridicule the governance in Bihar and how it was different from Gujarat.

It is probably Modi’s emphasis on such inter-personal relationships that endeared him to Nitish.

No criticism in private, but staying clear in public

Recalling an incident, Hindi political analyst Premkumar Mani had in 2012 reminisced how, soon after the 2004 Lok Sabha elections were declared and Lalu Yadav’s RJD had done exceptionally well at the expense the of NDA in Bihar, Nitish was not willing to accept in private that Modi was responsible for the loss. “Nitish ji came to my place. In a somber and firm voice, Nitish ji said, ‘Narendra Modi is the new face of the BJP. He comes from a most backward class. He is Ghanchi. It is a minority backward caste there. The BJP’s Brahmin lobby is out to defame him. Even Vajpayee has joined its ranks. Modi is a dynamic man. Meet him once and you will become his admirer. He comes from a very poor family. He is extremely simple and very diligent.”

Mani wrote about how Nitish also said that he had “become his (Modi’s) fan” after the latter one played host to him.

In public, however, Nitish maintained that Modi’s commissions and omissions during the Gujarat riots were responsible for the BJP’s poor showing in 2004.

Nitish must have realised that allowing Modi to visit or campaign in Bihar for the NDA would harm the coalition’s prospects further. This is why, during his first term as chief minister from 2005 to 2010, he was careful not to be seen in Modi’s company in public. There was just one slip along the way, which came in 2009.

How Modi had embarrassed Nitish

Providing a vivid account of the incident in his book The Bihari Brothers, noted journalist Sankarshan Thakur had written about how when campaigning for the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, Nitish was initially reluctant to attend a rally in Ludhiana where other NDA chief ministers, including Modi, were expected to participate. He nominated Sharad Yadav to attend the event instead.

However, on being told by JD(U) leader Sanjay Jha that L.K. Advani desired his presence at the event, he relented. On the stage, during the rally, Nitish’s worst fear came true. As Thakur wrote:

“He had barely set foot on the crowded stage when Narendra Modi, having quick-marched from the other end, took his hand and held it aloft for the crowd to see. A cheer went up that must have buzzed like a fly in Nitish’s ears. Cameras popped and Nitish must have felt like he was being shot. It was over in a trice. Before Nitish could recover his wits, Modi had left him and retreated to his appointed place on the dais.”

Narendra Modi and Nitish Kumar at the NDA rally in Ludhiana. Credit: PTI

Narendra Modi and Nitish Kumar at the NDA rally in Ludhiana. Credit: PTI

Thakur also wrote about how Nitish felt at the time, saying that when he reached the car, he fumed at Jha saying:

“Is this why you brought me here? You knew this was going to happen. I have been provoked and you got me here for this. All of this is deliberate, part of a design, tomorrow’s papers will carry the very picture which that man held my hand up for. I am strongly opposed to this kind of politicking.”

The pictures of Modi and Nitish holding hands were splashed across the front pages the next day.

The ebb

Nitish went on to become one of Modi’s most vociferous opponents. The relationship between the two probably ebbed in 2012, when Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray wrote in his party mouthpiece, Saamna, how Modi’s remarks about not allowing “even a single Bihari babu” during the Gujarat assembly election campaign was probably directed at Nitish. “During Bihar assembly elections, Nitish Kumar had prevented Modi from entering that state. He had also ordered the removal of Modi’s photo from JD(U)-BJP alliance posters,” Thackeray had written.

Despite his tussle with Modi, Nitish had initially eyed the leadership of the NDA ahead of the 2014 general elections. But once Modi was chosen to lead the alliance in the polls, Nitish made his exit. Even after Modi came to power, Nitish – who by now had won many hearts as he was seen as the man who could taken on Modi – kept up a relentless assault on the prime minister and his policies.

But after winning the 2015 assembly polls in Bihar in a mahgathbandhan with the Congress and RJD, Nitish mellowed. It was almost as if his immediate goal had been achieved and he wanted to go easy.

Modi sensed Nitish’s softening stance

In March 2016, while sharing the dais with Nitish in Patna during the opening of the Digha-Sonepur rail-cum-road bridge at Hajipur, Modi referred to Nitish as “mitr” (friend). He also chose to credit the Bihar chief minister for initiating the project when he was railway minister during the Vajpayee regime. Nitish, in turn, desisted from raising the issue of the Centre withdrawing a Rs 1.70 lakh assistance package for Bihar, which he had spoken assiduously about during the assembly polls.

In the months thereafter, Nitish also supported the Modi regime on issues such as the surgical strikes and demonetisation, which were criticised vehemently by both his mahgathbandhan allies – the Congress and the RJD.

By January this year, the bonhomie between Nitish and Modi was noticeable. At the 350th Prakash Utsav celebrations of Sikh Guru Gobind Singh in Patna, both were effusive in their praise of the other on the issue of implementing prohibition in Gujarat and Bihar. And then came the presidential poll. Nitish broke rank with the opposition and backed the NDA candidate, Ram Nath Kovind.

Gandhi today said the Congress knew Nitish planned to pull out of the mahagathbandhan for some months now. “People will do anything for their personal gains. There is no morality, no ethics,” he said.

Having realised this, Gandhi would do well to remember that those who have shifted camps multiple times can always make another change.