The Bihar CM has taken on an ambitious and difficult job: to unite the Opposition in time for 2024. The question of what will happen to him if he doesn’t looms
PATNA: Bihar’s Chief Minister (CM) Nitish Kumar has crisscrossed across the country over the past couple of months with the sole aim of persuading key Opposition leaders to unite against the BJP for the 2024 Lok Sabha polls. His mission — Opposition unity — took him to Delhi, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha and Jharkhand.
Through this, Nitish means to position himself as not only the mediator/ intermediary among several Opposition leaders with varying ambitions and political agendas, but also the leader who could take on a national role if needed.
To wit: The day after Nitish announced that the meeting initially planned on June 12 was deferred as leaders of some of the 20-odd Opposition parties were not available on that date, and had deputed second-tier party leaders to attend, Nitish made it clear that whenever the meeting would take place, only party bosses were expected to attend.
He left it to the Congress to decide the new date — for it was Congress that was planning to send its chief ministers to attend the meeting, as both party president Mallikarjun Kharge and Congress leader Rahul Gandhi were travelling on that day — and asked Janata Dal (United) president Rajiv Ranjan Singh alias Lalan Singh and deputy CM Tejashwi Yadav of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) to announce the new date.
Yadav hinted that Congress may have had reservations about the venue while confirming that “all like-minded parties agreed to hold the big meeting in Patna’.
There were talks in Congress circles that the meeting ought to have been scheduled in Shimla to ensure the participation of Sonia Gandhi, who is the chairperson of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) as well as the leader of the Congress Parliamentary Party.
The idea of the Patna conclave originated during a meeting between Nitish and Yadav with Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee in Kolkata at April-end, where the Bengal CM told Nitish that he needed to reignite the “JP spirit”. She was referring to the movement led by firebrand socialist leader, JP Narayan, under whose leadership Opposition parties united against the Emergency in the mid-70s.
The question, of course, is can he? But, an equally important question is: what happens to Nitish if he can’t?
Importance of Opposition unity for Nitish
For the 72-year-old, who has been the longest-serving CM of Bihar — eight terms; close to 17 years — the options are limited. He hinted at his intention to pass on the baton when he announced last December that the 2025 assembly election would be contested under Tejashwi Yadav’s leadership. Though he denies any ambition of becoming prime minister, his party has always projected him as the ideal candidate.
“By stating that Bihar’s next assembly elections in 2025 will be fought under Tejashwi Yadav’s leadership, it’s clear that Nitish envisages no future for himself in state politics. By leading the Opposition unity talks, Nitish has also ensured that he becomes a visible face on a national platform,” said Gyanendra Yadav, associate professor of Sociology at the College of Commerce in Patna.
“Opposition parties are not ready to accept him as their leader. However, Nitish knows that the BJP cannot be defeated without a strong unity of Opposition parties,” said D M Diwakar, former director of A N Sinha Institute for Social Studies.
His success – which, to be sure, depends on a lot more than his ability to bring all Opposition parties to the table, though no mean feat — will mean a second inning at the national level, Diwakar said.
“If he succeeds, he will have another active innings in creating history in national politics. Moreover, RJD wants to see its leader (Tejashwi Yadav) as CM. Hence, Nitish is trying his level best to play a role of historic importance, like JP. However, every party has its baggage and aspirations.”
An astute politician and a calculative man, Nitish was guarded in his comments on the Congress’ victory in the recently held Karnataka assembly polls. He called the results “expected”.
“He may not have wanted Congress’s triumph to overshadow his ‘Mission’. Nitish maintains that he is not in the race to be PM and his goal is only to mobilise the maximum number of non-BJP parties on a single platform. But he nourishes the ambition,” said Professor N K Chowdhary, former head of department (Economics), Patna University.
Nitish’s reluctance is a calculation that may well pay rich dividends.
For now, he seems to have succeeded in emerging as the key man in bringing the Opposition together, and more importantly in breaking the ice between the Congress and some of the key regional players like Mamata and Kejriwal, with whom the grand old party’s relations have been strained. Both Mamata and Kejriwal are expected to attend the meeting, along with Nationalist Congress Party’s Sharad Pawar, Shiv Sena UBT’s Udhav Thackeray, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s M K Stalin of Tamil Nadu, and Left leaders like D Raja, Sitaram Yechury and Dipankar Bhattacharya, besides Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge and Rahul Gandhi.
But his is not an enviable position — it is not enough to bring the parties together; he must ensure a common minimum programme too. To be fair, this is as much the responsibility of all the other Opposition parties as it is of Nitish’s, if they truly intend to achieve what they’ve set out to do: defeat the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the 2024 general elections.
The Opposition party unity bid riddled with several contradictions has agreed on at least on one point: to not attack Hindutva ideologue Veer Savarkar, on the request of Uddhav Thackeray-led Shiv Sena. A senior Janata Dal (United) leader, who is privy to the discussions on the unity bid by Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar, said there is a broad agreement that statements that give the ruling BJP “unnecessary” political advantage should not be made.
“The success of the Nitish factor in the Opposition unity plan would be established if he succeeds in bringing top non-BJP leaders from South India, such as KCR and Jagan, into the larger Opposition fold for the 2024 elections,” Chowdhary said.
However, Nitish has not yet been able to meet Telangana CM and Bharat Rashtra Samithi (BRS) supremo K Chandrasekhar Rao and Andhra Pradesh CM and YSRCP chief YS Jagan Mohan Reddy so far. KCR has his own national aspirations and he may not like to play second fiddle to other Opposition players.
The danger of switching sides
If Nitish fails in his mission, will he make another attempt to join the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance, as he did in 2017?
“The new breed of leaders would not allow this,” said Chowdhary.
JD (U) left the NDA after Narendra Modi was made the prime ministerial candidate in 2013. Nitish positioned himself within the secular-democratic framework and attempted to distinguish himself from the BJP. At the time, he said that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological fount of the BJP, is “not in the interest of the country and its people,” and that the country needed a “Sangh-mukt Bharat.”
In 2015, he joined hands with the RJD-led Grand Alliance to fight the assembly polls and eventually became CM. However, the alliance didn’t last, and his party passed a resolution to join the NDA in 2017.
His decision to desert the RJD, which was facing corruption charges, appeared to be a conscientious decision. However, Nitish almost immediately joined the BJP and continued to occupy the CM’s post. Many panned Nitish for his ideological U-turn and called him opportunistic.
Even his one-time associate, election strategist Prashant Kishor predicted a similar move again. Speaking at Vaishali during his Jan Suraj Yatra last month, Kishor said Nitish won’t be in GA for long and will join the NDA.
But, as political scientist NK Chowdhary pointed out, this may be tougher for Nitish this time around.