He was in the Capital for a book release function on Friday but Bihar chief minister and Janata Dal (U) leader Nitish Kumar used the occasion to refute recent speculation about his possible “ghar wapsi” to the Bharatiya Janata Party and even dished out some advice to the younger and impetuous Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi.

While dismissing media reports about his growing proximity to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Nitish Kumar urged Opposition parties to put up a united fight against the BJP without allowing the saffron party to set the agenda.

“The need of the hour today is maximum Opposition unity,” Nitish Kumar remarked. “It is also not necessary to react to everything said by the BJP. Why allow it to set the agenda? Why not set the agenda?”

The last bit of advice was clearly meant for Rahul Gandhi, who was seated in the audience. Modi-bashing has become the hallmark of the Congress vice-president’s approach and for over two years now, Rahul Gandhi has used every opportunity to launch an angry tirade against the BJP in general but Modi in particular. From the land acquisition Bill to demonetisation, from the BJP’s communal agenda to farmers’ woes, Rahul Gandhi’s speeches are invariably focused on Modi which include sound bytes like “suit boot ki sarkar” and “Pay to Modi”.

Though many Congress insiders are not comfortable with Rahul Gandhi’s penchant for taking on Modi on every issue, it was left to Nitish Kumar to drive home this point. Participating in a panel discussion following the release of former finance minister P Chidmabaram’s book, Fearless in Opposition, the Bihar chief minister counseled that it was unnecessary to respond to every decision or charge coming from the ruling side. “Our reactions should not occupy more than ten per cent space,” Nitish Kumar maintained. “Instead, the effort should be to set the agenda for the other side. Your work should speak for itself.”

Unambiguous message

At the same time, Nitish Kumar underlined that it was imperative for the disparate Opposition parties to join hands to take on the BJP. Coming a day before the first phase of polling in Uttar Pradesh, the Bihar chief minister’s comment is significant. Ever since photographs showing the bonhomie between Modi and Nitish Kumar were splashed in newspapers, it has been regularly suggested that the Bihar chief minister was building bridges with the BJP.

This speculation reached fevered pitch when Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal U) did not figure in the Congress-Samajwadi Party alliance after which the Bihar chief minister decided not to participate in the Uttar Pradesh polls even though his party and Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal had publicly declared that they would contest these elections together. Though the Janata Dal (U) officially maintained that it withdrew from the contest because it did not wish to disturb or divide the secular vote, its leaders privately admitted that Nitish Kumar was miffed that a Bihar-style mahagathbandhan or grand alliance did not take place in Uttar Pradesh.

On Friday, however, Nitish Kumar sent out an unambiguous message that he is very much in the Opposition camp. While giving an emphatic call for “ maximum opposition unity”, the Bihar chief minister also changed his views on the Modi government’s decision to invalidate high currency notes.

When the prime minister first made this announcement on November 8, Nitish Kumar had endorsed the decision, saying he favoured any move to curb corruption and root out black money. In fact, he went as far as to describe it as a courageous step. This had embarrassed his party members in Delhi who had joined the Opposition parties in stalling Parliament in the winter session in protest against demonetisation. Nitish Kumar’s open support for Modi’s controversial policy had further signaled that the Bihar chief minister was ready to kiss and make up with his one-time bête noire.

On Friday, Nitish Kumar was on the same page as the other Opposition parties. He agreed with former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s description of the move as “monumental mismanagement” and said that the Modi government should explain the benefits of demonetisation and reveal the amount of money it had recovered. He also accused the ruling alliance of diverting attention from the real issue by moving the goalposts. The Bihar chief minister said when the government first decided to do away with high currency notes, it announced the decision was to recover black money and check counterfeit notes but the conversation soon shifted to cashless and digital economy.

Nitish Kumar’s views on demonetisation and his call for Opposition unity must have come as relief for the other Opposition parties, which have also been talking about such a move but have made little headway in that direction. State-level rivalries among the parties and the plethora of prime ministerial contenders in the Opposition camp have rendered this an uphill task.