Can Nitish Kumar unite unlikely allies to take on BJP?

Kumar's seniority and vast political experience will come in handy

PTI09_05_2022_000214A PTI

On April 12, when Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar walked into the 10, Rajaji Marg residence of Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge in Delhi to discuss ways to bring opposition parties together, it marked the end of a long wait for the seasoned politician.

Nitish’s supporters say he is best suited to play the role of an anchor of the opposition grouping, given his seniority and vast political experience. And he enjoys a good rapport with leaders across parties.

Nitish had been waiting for the Congress to respond to his proposal that he could help bring opposition parties together to form an alliance for the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. Ever since he had severed ties with the National Democratic Alliance on August 9, 2022 and formed the mahagathbandhan government with the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Congress, the veteran leader had been expecting a call from the Congress.

Since 2015, when the mahagathbandhan had registered a stunning victory over the BJP in Bihar despite the saffron party riding high on the triumph of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Nitish has been keen on a similar alliance at the national level. He had suggested that he could help in reaching out to regional leaders, but the Congress was unwilling to cede space to regional forces. Similarly, most regional parties were not comfortable doing business with the principal opposition party. Nitish had subsequently returned to the NDA fold.

More recently, after the formation of the mahagathbandhan government in Bihar last year, Nitish met Congress president Sonia Gandhi along with RJD’s founding leader Lalu Prasad. He had in that meeting taken up the need to bring together the opposition. It was conveyed to him that he would have to discuss the issue with the new party chief. Kharge, however, was tied up with the Bharat Jodo Yatra and the preparations for the Congress plenary session.

At the national convention of the CPI(ML) Liberation held earlier this year in Patna, Nitish said he was waiting for the Congress to respond. The Bihar chief minister was among the first few opposition leaders Kharge reached out to in early April. A three-day visit to Delhi was planned soon after the phone call, with Nitish displaying a great sense of urgency to begin his outreach efforts. The meeting is being seen as the first major move towards opposition unity. Nationalist Congress Party president Sharad Pawar, another prominent figure in the anti-BJP bloc, was originally scheduled to join the meeting, but he met the Congress leadership a day later. Like Nitish, Pawar, too, underlined the need to reach out to parties like the Trinamool Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party.

It is learnt that Nitish has offered to bring on board parties that are not comfortable being in the same frame as the Congress, such as the Trinamool, the AAP, the Bharat Rashtra Samithi and the Samajwadi Party. Nitish’s deputy in the Bihar cabinet, Tejashwi Yadav, who has family relations with the Samajwadi leadership, would try and bring Akhilesh Yadav on board. The Bihar leader’s plan of action also includes reaching out to fence sitters like the Biju Janata Dal and the YSR Congress. On the other hand, the Congress is expected to reaffirm its ties with existing allies in states like Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Jharkhand.

United front: Mallikarjun Kharge (left)with Nitish Kumar (far right), Rahul Gandhi and other leaders at his residence in Delhi | PTI United front: Mallikarjun Kharge (left)with Nitish Kumar (far right), Rahul Gandhi and other leaders at his residence in Delhi | PTI

The opposition has missed the presence of a leader like the late CPI(M) stalwart Harkishan Singh Surjeet, who succeeded in bringing together unlikely allies, be it in the formation of the United Front governments after the Lok Sabha elections in 1996 or bringing the left and the Congress closer after the 2004 general elections. Nitish’s supporters feel that he could perform a similar role in the run-up to the Lok Sabha polls in 2024.

The Congress has described Nitish’s meeting with Kharge and Rahul as a “historic step”. Nitish’s supporters say he is best suited to play the role of an anchor of the opposition grouping, given his seniority and vast political experience. And he enjoys a good rapport with leaders across parties.

As per the proposal Nitish has made to the Congress, he would make an effort to bring as many parties as possible on a common platform. During his three-day visit to Delhi, he met Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury and CPI general secretary D. Raja.

Nitish has made it clear that any viable opposition grouping would require the Congress as its fulcrum. Hence, if his outreach efforts find takers among the parties that have kept their distance from the Congress, it also amounts to these parties accepting the Congress’s centrality in any opposition alliance. Nitish believes that the Congress cannot be kept out since the party and its allies take on the BJP in around 250 seats.

After meeting Nitish, Kejriwal said the entire opposition should come together and change the government at the Centre. This marks a huge departure from the AAP’s stated position as the party has been keen to maintain its identity as an entity that is different from other parties.

“We have all condemned the disqualification of Rahul Gandhi and we were together in petitioning the Supreme Court over the misuse of investigating agencies. These are still early days and what form this understanding among opposition parties takes will depend on a number of factors,” said Sanjay Singh, AAP Rajya Sabha member.

Nitish has proposed that the opposition parties should strive for the ideal scenario: in the Lok Sabha elections, the opposition will have a common candidate in at least 400 seats to rule out the division of votes. “If the opposition parties reach an understanding on the ‘one seat, one candidate’ policy, the BJP cannot win the Lok Sabha elections under any circumstance. It will be reduced to less than 100 seats,” said JD(U) leader K.C. Tyagi.

Congress leaders have so far conveyed the party’s readiness to make sacrifices. Rahul’s conviction in a defamation case and the subsequent disqualification from the Lok Sabha has had the effect of opposition parties such as the AAP and the Trinamool not looking at him as a contender. He has become a sort of a cause for the opposition. However, it is another matter for these parties to get into an electoral alliance with the Congress in the turfs they dominate. Also, the Congress leadership is aware that its local units in West Bengal, Delhi or Punjab would not be happy about reaching an understanding with rival parties.

Nitish’s political rivals say he is hoping to become the next prime minister. As Nitish returned to Patna after his Delhi tour, JD(U) workers welcomed him by showering petals on him and raising slogans hailing him as the next prime minister. Nitish promptly asked them to stop, saying it would be detrimental to his mission to unite the opposition.

Nitish may or may not be a prime ministerial aspirant, but he has certainly taken on a daunting task that has placed him in the forefront of the opposition line-up.