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…