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Narendra Modi-Nitish Kumar bonhomie in Patna: More to it than meets the eye?

Patna's Jay Prakash Narayan International Airport witnessed rare bonhomie on Thursday morning between two erstwhile alliance partners-turned bitter political enemies-turned friends — Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar.

And although it's part of protocol that the chief minister of the state concerned receives the prime minister on an official visit to the particular state, what people — including senior leaders of both the BJP and JD(U) — saw was indicative of the fact that smiles and handshakes between the two leaders were not part of civility and officialise. They had the warmth of a budding friendship and the re-bonding of a possible longer term relationship. Readers may recall that back when Nitish was railway minister in Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, he shared an excellent rapport Modi, then Gujarat chief minister. But in Patna, they were conscious not to spark off speculation that had no meaning — at least for now — that their personal  bonhomie could have political connotations.

Modi and Nitish left the airport in separate cars to meet again at the historic Gandhi Maidan where a replica of the Takht Sri Harmandir Sahibji  Gurudwara was built to mark the 350th birth anniversary of Guru Gobind Singh. Patna, it may be recalled, was after all the birthplace of the 10th Sikh Guru. Nitish received Modi again at Gandhi Maidan and took him to the dais. The two sat next to each other in saffron turban and were all smiles, often laughing at each other's words.

Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad who belongs to Patna sat next to them and on some occasion, even joined the conversation.

Nitish's support to Modi's demonetisation move has changed the personal and political dynamics between the two leaders. The Bihar chief minister extended unqualified support to demonetisation, puncturing Opposition unity and took away the moral halo from Opposition protests. Modi, on his part, publicly expressed his gratitude to Nitish and Navin Patnaik. Nitish's support and Modi's public acknowledgment has since then given rise to speculation about how far their new-found or renewed friendship could go.

After all, in politics there are no permanent friends and no permanent enemies.

There was no trace of the bitterness that was seen between Modi and Nitish in the run up to 2014 General Election. That seems to be in the past now — a chapter in history that they now wish to close for good. When Nitish rose to speak, he spoke of Modi as Chief Minister of Gujarat for multiple terms, 12 years. Although Nitish later linked his statement with prohibition, his message to those concerned was unmistakable. Modi, in turn, was full of praise for Nitish, for his personal initiative to make Prakash Parv celebrations a success, for his organisational ability and for his governance to make this mega event go on smoothly in Patna, where Sikh pilgrims from all over the country and various parts of the world had come.

Their appreciation for each other was reciprocal. It didn't seem like mere courtesy.

He referred to Nitish again: "Desh ko aage badhane me Bihar bahut bada kaam karega (In taking the country forward, Bihar will play a major role)."

What was interesting from a political perspective was the presence of Punjab chief minister and Akali Dal chief Parkash Singh Badal at the dais with Modi and Nitish. Prakash Parv celebrations in Patna could not have been complete without the presence of the Punjab chief minister. Badal is one of the senior most leaders in Indian political spectrum and his position in NDA has always been distinct. Interestingly, the Akali Dal, JD(U) and Shiv Sena were the original allies of the BJP.

The last time Modi and Nitish were publicly seen as friends, joining hands and laughing was at a public rally hosted by Badal in Jalandhar in 2009. A year later in June 2010 when the same picture re-appeared in Bihar dailies, Nitish became venomous against Modi who was then present in Patna with the rest of the top BJP leadership to attend a national executive meeting. That part is well known.

The changed dynamic between the two was first seen in August 2016 when Nitish had gone to meet Modi in New Delhi to seek Central assistance for relief and rehabilitation of affected people in the Kosi floods. It was also an occasion for Nitish to appreciate and endorse Modi's Namani Gange program. Way back in 2010, Nitish had returned a Rs five crore cheque to Modi that he had sent as Gujarat chief minister.

Will the presence of Badal be a catalyst once again for the Modi-Nitish relationship — only this time, a better, longer and more fruitful association? After all, Nitish has his own share of uneasiness with his current alliance partners — the RJD and Congress.

Updated Date: Jan 05, 2017 15:39 PM

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