Will Nitish Kumar's exit dent INDIA bloc's plans to block BJP in Lok Sabha polls?

The immediate impact will be felt in Bihar

PTI01_25_2024_000316A Separate ways: An April 2023 photo of JD(U) leader Nitish Kumar (left) and Congress leader Rahul Gandhi at Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge’s residence in Delhi | PTI

ON JUNE 23, 2023, when Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar hosted the first formal meeting of the apex leadership of opposition parties in Patna, the state capital was flooded with posters. One such poster put up near the venue of the meeting―Nitish’s official residence at 1 Anne Marg―declared, “Aagaaz Hua Hai, Badlav Hoga (A beginning has been made. It will usher in change).” The message was that the anti-BJP bloc would be an agent of change in the Lok Sabha elections.

Several months down the line, Nitish has, in the Congress’s description of his sensational U-turn, changed his colours yet again. At the June 2023 meet, Nitish was the anchor of the group of disparate parties. It is learnt that ever since he had broken away from the National Democratic Alliance in August 2022, he had been waiting to hear from the Congress leadership about going ahead with his plan of reaching out to other opposition parties, including the Congress’s rival parties. In April 2023, the process finally began, and Nitish travelled across the country to bring regional leaders on board to stage a joint fight against the BJP. He also put on the table the Nitish formula for 2024, which was to ensure that only one opposition candidate was fielded against the BJP in as many seats as possible.

Months later, it is this role that he had donned that makes his return to the NDA fold all the more astonishing and deals a big blow to the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance ahead of the general elections.

For maximum effect, Nitish’s exit happened right when former Congress president Rahul Gandhi was about to enter Bihar as part of his ongoing Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra, and the party planned to hold a rally to showcase opposition unity with representation from the Janata Dal (United) and the Rashtriya Janata Dal at the event.

Bihar was among the states where the INDIA bloc had a pre-existing alliance. It had a formidable support base in the state, with the RJD and the JD(U) together accounting for a sizeable vote bank comprising the other backward castes, the most backward castes, dalits and minorities. It was felt that the Mahagathbandhan could succeed in bringing down the tally of the BJP in Bihar. The BJP had won 17 seats in an alliance with the JD(U), which had won 16 seats, in Bihar in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.

Not seeing eye to eye: Nitish Kumar (far right) reportedly felt sidelined after Congress’s Mallikarjun Kharge (third from right) was made the face of the INDIA alliance at its Delhi meet in December. Also seen are (from left) DMK’s M.K. Stalin, Congress’s Sonia Gandhi, NCP’s Sharad Pawar and RJD’s Lalu Prasad | Rahul R. Pattom Not seeing eye to eye: Nitish Kumar (far right) reportedly felt sidelined after Congress’s Mallikarjun Kharge (third from right) was made the face of the INDIA alliance at its Delhi meet in December. Also seen are (from left) DMK’s M.K. Stalin, Congress’s Sonia Gandhi, NCP’s Sharad Pawar and RJD’s Lalu Prasad | Rahul R. Pattom

The immediate impact of Nitish’s exit on the INDIA alliance will be felt in Bihar, where it will now enter the Lok Sabha elections with a weakened support base, relying mainly on the RJD’s Muslim and Yadav vote bank. The BJP, along with Nitish and other NDA allies such as Upendra Kushwaha, Jitan Ram Manjhi and the Paswans, would now be looking to yet again sweep the state. The NDA had won 39 of 40 seats in 2019.

Nationally, Nitish’s exit comes as a huge problem of optics for the INDIA alliance. It is bound to be perceived as a situation where the person who attempted to bring the opposition together has lost confidence in the efficacy of the endeavour.

Bihar Congress president Akhilesh Prasad Singh, however, said that Nitish would be remembered for besmirching the image of Bihar politics. “The Congress and the INDIA alliance will take on the NDA aggressively in the state based on our strong commitment to social justice,” he said. “Nitish Kumar will end up as the biggest loser.”

The development questions the role of the Congress in ensuring that the INDIA alliance shapes up into a formidable opponent to the BJP in the Lok Sabha elections. Nitish and his party have criticised the Congress’s failure to act on INDIA bloc matters such as the administrative structure of the alliance, the different roles to be given to the leaders of the constituent parties, and seat sharing.

It is another matter that Nitish is learnt to have felt sidelined in the INDIA bloc over the past several months. He had expected to be made the convener of the alliance, but his party now claims that the Congress dragged its feet on the matter and even conspired to get West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee to propose Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge as the face of the alliance at its Delhi meeting in December. Banerjee had suggested that putting forth a dalit name for the prime minister’s post would give it a moral advantage over the BJP. Nitish and the JD(U) saw it as a message to him.

“The Congress wanted to capture the important positions in the alliance,” said JD(U) leader K.C. Tyagi. “When it was decided in the [September 2023] Mumbai meeting that the alliance will have no prime ministerial candidate, why was the name of Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge then proposed as the face of the alliance? The Congress put the alliance on the backburner during the assembly elections. It delayed seat sharing and there was no movement on getting a plan in place to counter the BJP.”

Having a seat-sharing arrangement that goes beyond the existing alliances has been a spot of bother for the Congress. Such an arrangement would have included tie-ups in Maharashtra, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Delhi. The less-than-friendly reception from the ruling Trinamool to the Congress’s yatra in West Bengal and Mamata’s declaration of going it alone in the Lok Sabha polls places in jeopardy the chances of putting up a joint fight against the BJP in the state. Punjab, too, is expected to see INDIA allies on both sides of the electoral divide. While Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav’s unilateral announcement on the day Nitish quit the alliance of keeping aside 11 seats for the Congress in Uttar Pradesh had the effect of providing some reassurance about the allies sticking together, it also put focus on the reduced bargaining power of the Congress. Talks have taken place with regard to sharing seats in Maharashtra and Delhi, but nothing is finalised yet.

Moreover, it is felt that a major factor in Nitish’s decision to go back to the NDA is the perceived impact of the Ram Mandir inauguration as an electoral issue. Majority of the MPs in the JD(U) camp gave the feedback to the party leadership that aligning with the BJP in the Lok Sabha elections in the backdrop of the Ram Mandir opening would yield better results. This puts tremendous pressure on the opposition parties to come up with a narrative that is strong enough to counter the BJP’s Ram Mandir-centred hindutva campaign.

The developments in Bihar also bring into renewed discussion the opposition’s strategy to use the social justice plank as a counter to the BJP’s hindutva campaign. Nitish, under whose leadership a caste census was carried out in Bihar, is now in the NDA camp. Also, the BJP has tried to counter the questions with regard to caste census at the national level by according the Bharat Ratna to former Bihar chief minister Karpoori Thakur, who had implemented reservation for the backward castes in the state.

However, Rahul, through his speech at his yatra rally in Purnia, Bihar, made it clear that the demand for a nationwide caste census will be among the foremost talking points for his party and the INDIA alliance in the Lok Sabha elections. “We (Congress and RJD) put pressure on Nitish Kumar to conduct caste census in Bihar,” he said. “Nitish Kumar has made a U-turn because Modi and the BJP want to put a lid on the issue of caste census. The BJP gave Nitish Kumar an escape route from his social justice pledge.”

It will be an uphill task though for the INDIA bloc to recover from the Nitish jolt.