One is 64, and the other 67. Both are from Bihar, and took their baby steps in politics during their college days, under the inspired leadership of Jaiprakash Narayan, ahead of the infamous Emergency. But the umbilical chord was soon chopped off and the two went their different ways.
In 1977, when the Janata Party was born, the older Lalu Prasad Yadav contested parliamentary elections and became MP while the younger, Nitish Kumar fought for a seat in the Bihar assembly elections.
The gap between the two Bihar leaders widened swiftly, as they were pitted against each other. They hurled the choicest of home spun abuses at each other. Lalu had formed his Rashtriya Janata Dal. He became the chief minister of Bihar in 1990, and held on to the position till 1997, when he had to quit office, under court order on grounds of his role in what is called the 'fodder scam'. A big corruption case that rocked politics, made news and ended his run in the state—well not really. He went to jail after settling his home-maker wife as Chief Minister!
Nitish Kumar, in the Janata Dal (United), halted the proxy rule of Lalu in 2005, when along with the BJP he trounced Lalu's RJD. He became the chief minister of Bihar that year, and did an encore in 2010 when the JD(U)-BJP alliance under his leadership trounced the RJD yet again. This time, Lalu's strength was reduced to 22, while Nitish had a flock of 206 in the state legislature.
The two are as different as two people can be. Lalu was all over the place, with his colourful speech, shrewd politicking and his caste-based support. Everyone in the country knows he was the Union railway minister, and he flaunted his family of nine children, taking pleasure in describing why he named a daughter Misa. Four of his nine children are married into political families, across parties!
Nitish has also been the Union surface transport minister, besides having been minister for agriculture. But how many know that? And what is a moment that reminds people of that? People will not remember that he brought about many reforms in the railways, or that he resigned owning moral responsibility over the Gaisal train disaster in which 285 passengers died in Assam. And yet again, he resigned as chief minister of Bihar when his party was trounced in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Lalu on the other hand was forced to leave the chief minister's chair.
Nitish had gone along with the BJP ever since the Janata Party split, and holds former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and BJP's seniormost leader Lal Krishan Advani in high esteem. He has his views on the Gujarat riots, like most politicians do. But that did not affect the relationship between his JD(U) and the BJP. As he has been saying, it was not the Modi-for-PM factor in the BJP of 2013-14 that soured the relationship.
It was how Narendra Modi, as chief minister of Gujarat, advertised the contribution his state made to the Bihar Chief Minister's Fund for the Kosi ravaged the state that hurt and humiliated him. All Biharis share that feeling, he says. Every state government helps the other in the face of natural calamities and nobody advertises that thus, he says, adding that the left hand does not know what the right gives at such times. But for this, he would possibly, have carried on with the BJP, and winning the elections would have been a cake walk this time too. And, PM Modi repeated his show of generosity when he addressed rallies in Bihar a couple of days ago.
At every nook and corner, Nitish is asked about his odd partnership with Lalu. Nitish has had to take along Lalu, not in order to make up for the missing strength of the BJP or to get the benefit of the caste arithmetic, but to take on the BJP. In a fight that is important for democracy. Development, he asserts, will be his plank.
In Bihar, we are fighting this elections for the continuation of democracy in India, says Nitish. His tone suggests that not just with long time foe Lalu, he would walk with anyone this time! And far from sounding apologetic about aligning with Lalu, who was a bitter rival till a few weeks ago, Nitish makes it sound as if they are a united army against Modi's style of politics.