Nitish Kumar's mien -- that was grim all day until the happy denouement on Wednesday night after the reunion with old ally, the BJP -- transformed when he saw his old friend, Sushil Kumar Modi from the party. He broke into a smile that signified relief more than anything else, because in the years when Kumar had partnered the BJP, as the Bihar chief minister and an Opposition leader, Sushil held a special place for him.
At 65, Sushil is just a year younger than Kumar and the contemporaneity adds to the comfort level they have shared. But there's more to the conviviality. Sushil and Kumar began their political careers almost together as followers of Jaya Prakash Narayan, after being drawn to his call for "total revolution" in the seventies. Sushil came into politics through the RSS's student front, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, while Kumar belonged to the Socialist genre inspired by Ram Manohar Lohia, the icon of the "samajwadis". They were arrested and jailed during the Emergency under the repealed Maintenance of Internal Security Act. Their shared experiences created a lasting bond that was briefly disrupted when Kumar sundered ties with the BJP in 2013 and teamed up with the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Congress.
The parting of ways hurt Sushil far more than Kumar because it happened under bitter circumstances, left a sour taste in the mouths of many BJP leaders and cadre barring those that stayed "neutral" or secretly sided with Kumar in his open confrontation with Narendra Modi and cast a shadow of doubt over Sushil's "allegiance" to Modi who by 2010 had cast himself as a serious contender for the NDA's prime ministerial candidacy in the 2014 elections.
Sushil's problems with Modi began in the summer of 2010 when the BJP held a national executive session in Patna, reportedly against the Bihar leader's counsel. Sushil, the deputy chief minister in the BJP-Janata Dal (United) coalition government, did not want the meet in Bihar, fearing the presence of Modi, then the Gujarat chief minister, might create unnecessary intra-alliance problems in the prelude to the assembly elections in the state. On his part, Modi had irked Kumar when posters, hailing his leadership, sprouted all over Patna. Kumar had embarked on a serious move to win over or at least neutralise the misgivings the Muslims had about his alliance with the BJP. Modi's high-profile presence and the recall rate that the 2002 anti-Muslim violence of Gujarat carried bothered him.
Kumar expressed his anger over the posters at a luncheon interaction with the media, hinting that if push came to shove, he was ready to go solo in the elections. He disinvited Modi for a dinner he was hosting for the BJP brass at his residence. The buzz was the BJP's "Nitish sympathisers" who included Sushil were open to the idea of going over to the chief minister's do minus Modi but a bulk of the Bihar BJP, including the cadre, raised a howl of protest and insisted that everyone must boycott the dinner that they did.
Sushil joined the pitch but many in the BJP thought his opposition to Kumar lacked the conviction
Sushil had his way later when he prevailed upon the Delhi leadership to fend off the pressures exerted by a phalanx of Bihar biggies to break the alliance with Kumar especially after the chief minister returned a cheque sent by Modi for the Bihar government's flood relief corpus.
The alliance not only survived but delivered a thumping victory that was also read as a vindication of the "faith" reposed by Sushil in Kumar's stewardship of Bihar. Nitish ensured Modi did not step into his state to campaign, saying one Modi (read Sushil) was enough.
Sushil's colleagues did not share his affection for Kumar. After Modi won a third term in Gujarat in 2012, bolstering his claim for being projected as the NDA's CM candidate, the anti-Nitish voices in the BJP grew louder and persistent. Sushil stood isolated.
When the anti-Nitish campaign reached a crescendo in the 2014 elections, Sushil joined the pitch but many in the BJP thought his opposition to Kumar lacked the conviction that the invectives sounded by Ashwini Choubey and Giriraj Singh carried.
So, when it was time to attack Lalu Prasad and his family over a slew of fresh corruption allegations, clearly aimed to rupture the RJD's alliance with Kumar and destabilise the coalition, a section of the BJP was convinced only Sushil could pull off a campaign with the aplomb and aggression he deployed to nail Lalu on the fodder scam without lapsing into hyperbole.
Initially, it seems that Modi and the BJP president Amit Shah weren't over enthused about assigning the project to Sushil. A degree of trust deficit still existed. But when the leadership, determined by then to tear apart the coalition, cast its net about to find a face and a voice to initiate the anti-Lalu tirade, there was none, save Sushil.
Once the task was assigned, Sushil, who had been lying low since the BJP was voted out of power in Bihar, went on the front foot. Through tweets and press conferences, he hit Lalu and Kumar where it hurt the most by targetting Lalu's son, Tejaswi who was Kumar's deputy CM. It was Sushil's idea to chase Tejaswi instead of Lalu, who is already convicted and debarred from contesting an election. The son was the rising star and had to be nipped right away. He used the CBI's charge against Tejaswi possessing 13 illegal properties and coined the slogan that at 26, the young man was already sitting over "26" benami sources of wealth. Think if he stayed on in power, how the number would multiply. Sushil spared no opportunity to disconcert his old friend Kumar, comparing him with the pilot of a hijacked aircraft. In short, Sushil whipped up the right political ambience to facilitate Kumar's decision to bid good-bye to Lalu. The developments were choreographed by an ensemble that included the sharpest brains the BJP has but the script was written by Sushil. It was a befitting way to bounce back in the reckoning.
Should Kumar ever fear that the H (Hindutva) word may return to haunt him, he has Sushil for solace. Sushil believes the minorities are "not allergic" to him. He has his personal life by way of testimony. His wife, Jessie, is a Syrian Christian from Kerala and years ago, their wedding was attended by the BJP's top leaders who wanted to use the occasion to signal that they weren't against inter-faith marriages.
Also on HuffPost India