NEW DELHI -- Nitish Kumar's party workers skipped the airport welcome for Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) President Amit Shah when he landed in Patna; but the carefully-choreographed meetings between Shah and Kumar sought to assure their cadres that the BJP-Janta Dal (United) alliance was stable.
The two met for almost an hour over breakfast and then again for dinner, with both sides focused on reaffirming ties, before a group that included BJP and JDU leaders. The modalities of seat-sharing and issues were touched up in a brief one-one-one meeting between Shah and Nitish after dinner.
The return to "normalcy", senior functionaries from the JDU and the BJP said, was a relief to both camps — suggesting the BJP's renewed appreciation for its regional allies in a year when the Telegu Desam Party has departed in a huff, the alliance with the People's Democratic Party in Kashmir has unravelled, and the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra remains recalcitrant.
"We will need allies and we can't afford to antagonise any more regional forces," a source close to Shah said.
So in Patna, this week, BJP functionaries were eager to showcase the camaraderie between the two leaders.
"The bonhomie between Shah and Nitish took the bureaucrats who were in attendance aback. Nitish's workers regretted not going to the airport to receive the BJP chief," said a senior BJP functionary from Bihar. "After today, I can safely say that the alliance is firmly on track and no external force can destabilise it."
"There is consternation in the enemy camp after the Shah-Nitish bonhomie"
The "external force" is obviously the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), led by Lalu Prasad's feisty son, Tejashwi Yadav. The junior Yadav had slammed the door on Nitish's face when the JDU sought to make nice with the RJD after last year's estrangement.
"There is consternation in the enemy camp after the Shah-Nitish bonhomie," said a BJP central minister from Bihar. "The RJD-Congress's game-plan to overthrow our alliance (before the 2019 Lok Sabha polls) has come unstuck."
A source close to RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav contested the boast and said, "Nitish has been brought done by several notches. Everyone has noticed that he went scurrying first to the state guest house where Shah was put up although the whole thing was called a breakfast meet."
On his part, Nitish sought to clear the air before Shah's visit.
First, he clarified that his gesture towards the RJD was merely to ask after Lalu Prasad's medical condition after a recent surgery. Second, he relaxed certain stringent provisions in Bihar's prohibition law.
"Our constituents were shaken up and furious with the rigour with which the so-called offenders were thrown in jail," said a BJP MP from Bihar, claiming his voters had been badgering him to get the law softened. "It was propagated that the law had become a hit among women and that Nitish was set to get their block votes in the future elections.
"This is a myth. There's nothing like a gender vote in Bihar."
JDU sources refused to comment, beyond saying that the law must not "victimise" the poor from all castes.
As a quid pro quo of sorts, the BJP counselled the Bihar central ministers, notably junior ministers Ashwani Choubey and Giriraj Singh, to hold back their rabble-rousing rhetoric, and tone down attempts to polarise the Hindus and Muslims. While communal polarisation might work for the BJP, Nitish's camp fears that heightened Muslim insecurity could consolidate their votes around the RJD.
In April 2018, the Bihar government had arrested Arijit Shashwat, Choubey's son, for allegedly inciting mobs in the communally-sensitive town of Bhagalput against Muslims. Shashwat is a member of the BJP's youth wing.
"Our cadre was furious with the chief minister," a state BJP office-bearer said.
Last week, Giriraj Singh visited the activists of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the BJP's militant sibling, who are in jail for causing communal riots during the "Ram Navami" festival in 2017. The chief minister objected to the visit.
However the BJP will find it hard to dilute or forsake its communal agenda as the polls approach, party members conceded.
"Giriraj ji's constituency, Nawada, is full of hard line Hindus who are against Muslim appeasement. He has to keep them happy," a BJP central officer-bearer said.
Union agriculture minister Radha Mohan Singh, who represents the East Champaran constituency, told HuffPost India that the alliance could, and would, stay on track till the polls.
"That's the overt message from the BJP president's message to us, the state leaders and the cadre," Singh said. "There can and there will be no deviation from the message."
Singh would not admit, but the Shah-Nitish love-in was a signal the BJP's current and prospective allies that the party was prepared to head a coalition government again at the Centre and in the states.
"Since the 2014 elections, only N Chandrababu Naidu left us but Nitish Kumar came back and strengthened the alliance."
The BJP's spectacular performance in the 2014 elections, and success in a series of assembly elections, had the BJP confident of its own strength, and dismissive of its regional allies.
Now there seems to be a realisation that the party may not do as well in 2019, as it did in 2014.
"We know very well how to take good care of allies," Shah said, according to news reports of a public meeting with party cadres on Thursday. "Since the 2014 elections, only N Chandrababu Naidu left us but Nitish Kumar came back and strengthened the alliance."
So who won and who lost after Thursday's event?
"Both are winners," said a source close to Nitish Kumar, explaining that the Bihar chief minister was not a caste leader like Lalu Prasad, but was an experienced administrator and commanded the chunk votes of the most backward castes and the extremely backward castes to augment the BJP's base of the upper castes, the Vaish (traders who are classified among the backward castes in Bihar), the non-Yadav backward castes and some Dalits.
"It's a winning combination," the source said. "The BJP and the Dal (United) fought separately in 2014 and we were left with only two seats."
Bihar's stark reality is that both the BJP and the Dal (United) need allies.
The JDU has insisted that it must contest the same number of seats as the BJP but is ready to part with seats for the other allies, namely the Lok Janshakti Party and the Rashtriya Lok Samta Party, from the common pool.
The fact that the BJP fought 22 of the 40 seats in 2014 (leaving seven for the LJP and three for the RLSP) is something the party will not forget easily.
"At best we can scale down our expectation to 17 or 18," a BJP state functionary said, adding, "In which case Nitish will have to settle for 12."
An LJP office-bearer said, "These are details that will be sorted out. The important thing is to go as a united front in the Lok Sabha polls, campaign together and affirm our joint faith in Narendra Modi's leadership."