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As opposition leaders sat to discuss the presidential poll on Thursday, one man's absence told its own tale. The man was Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and his message was clear. The JD(U) president was nobody's man but his own -- and his party's. Opposition leaders yesterday devoted some time to Nitish, whose decision to support NDA presidential nominee Ram Nath Kovind had rattled many. RLD leader Lalu Prasad promised to coax him into supporting the opposition candidate Meira Kumar, a Dalit from Bihar, a state that Nitish has ruled since 2005, barring a nine-month break. Though described in many quarters as a "surprise" move, Nitish's endorsement of Kovind is just one among many decisions he has taken in recent months which set his party apart from the non-NDA bloc it belongs to. "He takes contrarian decisions from time to time if he thinks they are in public interest," JD(U) leader K C Tyagi said. That the 66-year-old Socialist was going against the tide on the presidential poll, to be held on July 17, became evident last month when he skipped an opposition lunch convened by Congress chief Sonia Gandhi to discuss the issue - and the very next day attended a lunch hosted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi for visiting Mauritius Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth. The CM also supported the NDA on issues roundly criticised by the opposition such as the Army's strike on Pakistan troops in October last year and the NDA's decision to ban high currency notes in November. "He is wont to take decisions on the basis of his conscience and pragmatism -- and at times both. He thought demonetisation and GST were good for the country and so backed them," said Patna-based social scientist Shaibal Gupta. Nitish has weaved his way in and out of tie-ups with the NDA. He left the non-NDA group for an alliance with the BJP, and then opted out of it to form a 'maha-gathbandhan' against the NDA for the 2015 assembly polls. Hostile to Modi to begin with, Nitish has made soothing sounds in recent years -- a far cry from 2010 when he called off a dinner in Patna because Modi was going to be a part of it. Nitish was said to have been irked that supporters of the then Gujarat CM had put up posters which tom-tommed that Gujarat had donated Rs 5 crore to Bihar for flood relief. Modi's resounding victory in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections may have tempered Nitish's position. In 2015, when Modi made a sudden stopover in Lahore on his way back from Kabul, Nitish surprised his allies by congratulating him. "Nitish has a habit of deviating from the official line of the party or alliance," said senior Bihar BJP leader Nand Kishore Yadav. "He did so in the past, too," Yadav said, referring to the 2012 presidential poll. The CM had then sprung a political surprise on his allies - the NDA - by backing the UPA presidential candidate, Pranab Mukherjee, against the NDA's P A Sangma.
He had a personal relationship with Mukherjee, he said. In the case of Kovind, a dalit, caste politics are possibly at play. The Maha-dalits are a large constituency in Bihar, and Nitish would not like to alienate them - as he did when he installed, and then summarily dismissed, Jitan Ram Manjhi, a dalit, as Bihar CM before the 2015 state poll. Not everybody saw Nitish Kumar's moves as politically astute. "Nitish has nothing to do with his own party or alliance and goes by whatever suits his narrow and personal political interests," said RJD MLA Bhai Birendra. The MLA's outspoken views strengthened the belief that all was not well between the JD(U) and RJD's Prasad, whose family members' financial dealings were being probed by central agencies. This, some leaders said, was another reason why Nitish was publicly moving away from his allies. "He is very image conscious. And he doesn't want a dhabba (stain) on him," a Bihar watcher said. "This is his way of distancing himself from the larger opposition where Lalu plays a big part." But Nitish, known for his tightrope acts, isn't walking out of the opposition either. So while he skipped Gandhi's lunch, he was present in Chennai for DMK leader M Karunanidhi's 94th birthday last month. Yesterday, LJP leader Ramvilas Paswan urged Nitish to join the NDA. He should not be in "two boats at the same time", he said. But the Bihar CM has shown that he will do just that. As long as he wants to.