Narendra Modi was up to something, and Nitish did not like the thought of it. But it still did not bother him as long as he did not have to deal with his Gujarat counterpart. That changed on 10 May 2009.
The NDA, pushing for L K Advani as prime minister, had scheduled one of its biggest shows of strength in the 2009 Lok Sabha campaign at Ludhiana on that date. Invitations had gone out to prominent leaders of all constituent parties and NDA chief ministers. K Chandrashekhar Rao of the Telangana Rashtra Samithi had decided to participate, breaking away from the UPA. This had brought new buoyancy to NDA ranks.
Nitish was reluctant to join the rally, averse as he was to sharing a stage with Narendra Modi. He had requested JDU president Sharad Yadav to go. Two days before the rally, Jaitley called Nitish to say Advani was very keen he came, he had made a personal request. Nitish did not commit himself immediately. Jaitley then put Sanjay Jha on the job, and Jha was eventually able to convince Nitish that they’d go by chartered flight, attend the rally and return the same evening. Short and clinical. It would make Advaniji happy.
Nitish and Sanjay Jha flew to Chandigarh, then drove to the rally ground. The Akali hosts had planned the Ludhiana rally Punjabi-style. It was a big and boisterous affair – drums beating, swords flashing, bhangra dancers flexing about. Nitish was probably too taken by the merry commotion to see the prospect he most feared hotfooting it in his direction.
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.
When he got back into the car with Sanjay Jha after the rally, he lavished him with a hot mouthful. He was fuming. He said, “Isi liye yahan laaye thhe? Aap jaante the kya hone waala hai, provoke kiya gaya hai mujhe aur aapne mujhe phansaaya.” . . . 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. Sanjay Jha tried a stuttering pacification, but Nitish was in no mood to listen. “Sab deliberate hai, design hai, kal akhbar mein wohi photo chhapega jo us aadmi ne mera haath pakadke jabardasti khhichwaya. Is tarah ki rajneeti ke main sakht khilaf hoon.” . . . 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.
It was Sanjay Jha’s turn to be stunned. He hadn’t realized the depth of Nitish’s aversion to Narendra Modi; his anger dripped ghrina, repugnance.
The two did not exchange a word until they reached Patna. The next morning, when Sanjay Jha saw the photograph plastered across the newspapers, he conceded quietly to himself he may have been the instrument of leading Nitish into a trap; Nitish was flailing in it. Modi’s Ludhiana hand-grab would return to haunt him and the alliance very soon.
In June 2010, a few days before the BJP’s national executive was to meet in Patna, posters began to appear on the city’s walls thanking Narendra Modi for his mahadaan, noble donation, towards relief for Kosi flood victims: a sum of Rs5 crore.
On the eve of the session, giant hoardings went up on Patna’s vantage crossroads proclaiming Modi’s largesse and expressing gratitude to the Gujarat chief minister on behalf of the people of Bihar. Many of these were sponsored by lesser lights of the local BJP unit, men like Rameshwar Chaurasia and Nitin Navin. Modi was arriving in Bihar for the first time in many years, he had won successive elections in Gujarat, he was being feted by his partymen. Excitement eddied around him.
Nitish was not in Patna when the BJP session began, he was in north Bihar on a leg of his Vikas Yatra, laying the ground for assembly elections that were scheduled within months. He was returning, though; he had assured Sushil Modi he would host a dinner for BJP leaders before they left Patna. Sushil Modi had suggested Chanakya Hotel, where many BJP leaders were staying. Nitish said no, he would call them all home for a meal, hotels are impersonal.
A shamiana had been erected on the lawns of 1 Aney Marg; the kitchen rigged at the back had been given a list of sweetmeats typical to Bihar—balushahi, belgrami, khaja, fine-flour wafers; and, of course, there would be litti and chokha. BD Singh, the energetic Maurya Hotel factotum, had been handed turnkey charge of a five-star menu and service, the chief minister himself would tick the boxes on preparations once he arrived back in Patna.
Invitation cards were printed, individually addressed to each member of the BJP national executive and state leaders. The evening before the dinner, they were handed to Shyam Jaju, an old BJP hand who supervised the party headquarters in Delhi, for distribution.
When the morning’s papers were brought to Nitish the next day, what he saw left him so irate he couldn’t hold his cup of tea straight. Full-page advertisements had appeared in two of Patna’s largest circulated Hindi dailies—Jagaran and Hindustan—thanking Narendra Modi for the Rs5 crore flood relief money.
The sponsors were a hitherto unknown set that called themselves “Friends of Bihar”. The issuing agency was the Patna-based Expression Ads owned by a PR conduit called Arindam Guha, well-known to both media and government circles. None of those filters could mask the author of the ad. The text on it was irrelevant, it was the subtext that burned into Nitish—the Ludhiana photograph leapt off the page: there it was again, Narendra Modi and Nitish Kumar, palms clutched and held aloft.
Nitish thought it a distasteful and offensive taunt; worse than a rude joke, a makhaul, mockery.
Narendra Modi had come to Patna, and in one go, twice violated him. He had paid to have a photograph published that Nitish was hustled into and which he wanted deleted from the memory boards. He had made to belittle Bihar by publicizing his relief contribution as a favour done.
About the first thing Nitish did on recovering from his rage was call Sanjay Jha. The dinner won’t happen, recall the invitations. Nitish’s tone told Sanjay Jha it was no time to argue or reason. The chief minister also instructed his home staff to have the shamiana pulled down and the kitchen put out.
Sushil Modi learnt Nitish had scrapped the dinner with the BJP executive still in session. He wasn’t surprised, having seen and remarked upon the newspaper advertisement himself. His worst fears were taking shape, a showdown between the alliance partners just months short of the elections. He had, in fact, advised party leaders not to hold the session in Patna, he didn’t want to be dealing with intra-alliance irritants when the focus was on the approaching polls.
The BJP leadership had settled on Patna for quite the same reason – a session ahead of elections would serve to galvanise party cadres. Sushil Modi tried reasoning with Nitish through intermediaries, but in vain. Galat message chala jaayega chunav ke pehle, he argued, this will send out a wrong message before elections. The deputy chief minister knew he would fetch no quarter. He knew his boss to be a stubborn man, and now that he had taken a position, he wouldn’t give.
Nitish was curt and unmoved. “Galat message chala gaya hai, aap logon ne bheja hai, meri jaankari ke bina yeh sab chhapa kaise?” . . . The wrong message has already gone out and you people have sent it. How did this get published without my knowledge?
That afternoon Nitish had invited journalists who had arrived from Delhi to cover the BJP session to a casual interaction over lunch at the Chanakya Hotel. He came visibly upset and told his guests he had withdrawn the dinner invitation to BJP leaders and was seeking an inquiry into how the advertisement was published. “Serious maamla hai, iski tehkikaat hogi.” … it is a serious issue, it will be probed.
Beyond the political immorality Nitish saw in it, there was also a case, if thin, for legal violations. No paid-for material that carried a photograph of the chief minister was meant to be published without the approval of the government’s information department. Rakesh Dubey, a mid-level police officer, was asked to investigate the paper trail of the ad. His mission took him as far as Surat but the tracks had been efficiently covered. Dubey gathered that among the backers of Friends of Bihar, an outfit never heard of before or since, was the BJP MP from Navsari, CR Patil, and that a sum of Rs30 lakh had been paid, through Expression Ads, as fees.
At this point, Nitish was reconciled to breaking with the BJP.
He told confidants to be prepared to strike out on their own in the elections. Gloom had descended on the BJP camp; many top leaders, including the then party chief Nitin Gadkari, L K Advani and Arun Jaitley, sensed Narendra Modi had caused unnecessary provocation, jolted the alliance. It wasn’t good news. They had lost to the Congress at the Centre a second successive time in 2009. Narendra Modi’s public sneer could rob them of another key state.
But Narendra Modi could not understand what the fuss over the advertisement was all about. He grumbled about Nitish’s bad manners – how rude and uncultured of him to withdraw a dinner invitation, he ranted to his set of loyalists that night, and why should I not be welcome in an NDA-ruled state? It is time these questions are asked.
When he addressed a party rally at the Gandhi Maidan the next afternoon, he rubbed the Gujarat-Bihar comparison in – “You folks in Bihar are just about emerging from the ditch you have been in. Come to Gujarat and see what a prosperous place we have created there…” He was putting Nitish down. He concluded his speech without naming him.
For the next few days it seemed a parting of ways was imminent. Nitish announced he had sent back the Rs5 crore cheque to Gujarat; rebuffed, the BJP leadership reacted: it wasn’t a personal cheque for Nitish, Gadkari countered in a meeting with JDU president Sharad Yadav in Delhi, it was meant for the people of Bihar, Nitish is insulting us. Sharad Yadav was grim and silent, he hadn’t the authority to speak on Nitish’s behalf. He only informed the BJP chief calmly that his indignation may be a little misplaced because from what he knew, the Gujarat government had cashed the spurned cheque into its account the day it arrived back.
Excerpted with permission from The Brothers Bihari, Sankarshan Thakur, HarperCollins India.