New Delhi: In December last year, the Janata Dal (United) [JD(U)]’s National Council had authorised the Bihar chief minister and party chief Nitish Kumar to take the lead in bringing opposition parties together to take on the dominant Bharatiya Janata Party in 2024 Lok Sabha polls. Although Kumar has been meeting various opposition leaders and attending different events that brought together different opposition parties, he set his plan in motion formally on Wednesday, April 12.
The chief minister, along with his deputy Tejashwi Yadav, met Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge and Congress leader Rahul Gandhi on Wednesday morning and addressed the press to say that the talks with the Grand Old Party, which he believes should anchor the possible opposition front, reached the “final stage” on Wednesday. The plan and process of bringing all parties together have begun, he said.
Nitish said that the plan is to “bring together as many opposition parties together against the BJP as possible”, and “chart a common path” by focusing on mutual agreements instead of disagreements. He added that once all opposition parties begin to talk positively towards this course, people may be surprised to see how many of them come together on a common platform.
The meeting is significant as it marked Congress’s support to Kumar in leading the talks between different opposition parties. Recall Kumar’s statement at CPI-ML- Liberation’s national convention in Patna on February 18, 2023, that he was “waiting for the Congress’s signal to work for uniting all the opposition parties”, and had claimed that “the BJP wouldn’t cross 100 seats in 2024″ if there is opposition unity. Congress leader Salman Khurshid was present at the Patna convention and had responded that he would “advocate on Nitish’s behalf in his party.” Not surprisingly, Khurshid was present at the meeting at Kharge’s house on Wednesday.
To be sure, a great number of opposition parties have already come together in many of the electorally-big states. Bihar’s Mahagathbandhan comprising the Rashtriya Janata Dal, JD(U), Congress, Left parties and other smaller parties make up a formidable front. Similarly, the coming together of the Uddhav Thackeray-led Shiv Sena, Congress, and the Nationalist Congress Party to form the Maha Vikas Aghadi is also no mean feat. In states like Jharkhand and Tamil Nadu, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance appears quite strong.
Those outside the fold of such pre-poll coalitions have also shown their inclination to come together on common issues. Over the last few months, as many as 14 parties came together to challenge the Union government in the Supreme Court on the issue of alleged misuse of investigation agencies against opposition leaders. Similarly, Rahul Gandhi’s disqualification saw 19 political parties protesting together in New Delhi. Although some of the opposition parties have now taken a different route, most of them came together to demand a Joint Parliamentary Committee probe into the allegations of favouritism against the Narendra Modi government after the US-based investment firm Hindenburg Research accused the Adani Group of financial fraud.
Nitish Kumar has ensured that he doesn’t let out any mixed signals against such a backdrop. He has repeatedly and unequivocally said that any credible opposition front is not possible without the Congress. Aware of the fact that the Congress is still placed as a direct electoral rival of the BJP in as many as 250 seats, he has directly or indirectly denounced the idea of a non-Congress opposition front sought to be advanced by leaders like K. Chandrashekhar Rao of the Bharata Rashtra Samithi (BRS) or Trinamool Congress (TMC)’s Mamata Banerjee, or even Samajwadi Party’s Akhilesh Yadav.
At the same time, he has not burnt bridges with any of these parties. Since September last year, Kumar has met a range of these leaders – including Aam Aadmi Party (AAP)’s Arvind Kejriwal, Akhilesh Yadav, Left leaders Sitaram Yechury and D.Raja, NCP’s Sharad Pawar, Indian National Lok Dal’s Om Prakash Chautala and the likes.
Faced with accusations that his actions are driven because he harbours prime ministerial ambitions, Kumar has also made efforts to dismiss such claims. “My sole aim or mission is to unite the opposition, and I will work for it. I have been saying it. I have no personal wish to become the prime minister,” he said earlier this year in January, one of the many times over the last few months that he has reiterated his hope for a united opposition front.
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The Real Challenge Begins
Now that he has formally announced that he will anchor the talks of opposition unity, and has Congress’s support, his real challenge will be two-fold. Firstly, he will need to bring on board four political parties – AAP, Samajwadi Party, TMC, and BRS. All of these parties see Congress as a political rival in their respective states. If the rivalry of these parties with the Congress forces a triangular – and sometimes a four-cornered – contest, it could hand over a significant electoral advantage to the BJP.
So, if AAP and Congress fight the Delhi polls together, the BJP will be in for a solid battle. Similarly, if the TMC, Congress, and Left fight the Bengal polls together, then the BJP might find it difficult to win even a single seat. The coming together of the Samajwadi Party and Congress in Uttar Pradesh will ensure that the significant 20% votes of the minorities do not get divided. Similarly, the BRS and Congress combine can stop the fledgling BJP in Telangana.
Secondly, Nitish – in order to forge a solid opposition front – will also have to bring on board small state-level parties which have, more often than not, allied with the dominant BJP in a matrix of a divided opposition. Akhilesh Yadav understood the importance of these players and attempted to join hands with some of them. A major chunk of the credit for his party’s improved performance in the 2022 Uttar Pradesh assembly polls compared to 2017 should be given to some of these parties that are influential in pockets.
More than the electoral equations, the opposition will benefit from the optics it sends across to the electorate. A united opposition front will matter much more in the perception battle with the BJP, and in advancing its political narrative to a great extent.
The possibility of such a “united voice”, even before it has taken any concrete shape, has already forced Prime Minister Narendra Modi to take it down as the “coming together of the corrupt on one stage”. Notably, Modi dismissed the opposition’s efforts to jointly protest against his regime at the BJP headquarters in Delhi, in what was a clear message to the party’s rank and file about how to counter such voices in the future.
Over the years, Nitish Kumar has switched between various camps, and for a major part of his political career has been part of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance. But ever since joining the opposition ranks in August 2022, he has shown a new ideological resolve. Not only has he spoken against the BJP’s Hindutva and alleged autocratic agenda but has also attempted to go back strongly to his Mandal-based social justice roots.
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Nitish’s three-pronged strategy
The opposition ranks can truly benefit from his rich political experience. Even his erstwhile rival and now ally Lalu Prasad Yadav knows him as one of the greatest political negotiators of this time. The Wire had earlier reported that Nitish has a three-pronged strategy to take on the BJP, while also striving towards a strong opposition front.
Firstly, Kumar hopes that a united opposition in Bihar and Jharkhand and an alliance with the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh could help the opposition win at least 70 of the 134 Lok Sabha seats in these three states. In 2019, the BJP won a whopping 115 in these three states. If Nitish’s efforts do succeed, the opposition could pull the BJP down to below a simple majority in 2024.
Secondly, Kumar is sure that a presidential style election in which Rahul Gandhi – or anyone else – is pitched against Modi is detrimental to the opposition’s prospects. He would rather have the opposition contest on the lines of the 1996, 2004, and 2009 Lok Sabha polls in which it could defeat the BJP despite the fact that the saffron party had declared its prime ministerial nominee. Kumar wants the opposition parties to create an issue-based political narrative that concentrates on the failures of the Modi government like price rise, unemployment, indiscriminate sale of national assets, corruption, and atrocities against minorities and Dalits. At the same time, the opposition front, he believes, should promise a pointed alternative that comes across as credible and futuristic.
And thirdly, Kumar hopes that the Congress agrees to take a back seat in states where it has limited presence and put the state-level dominant players in the driving seat.
All of these are easier said than done. Given how the opposition parties have been quick to comment on each other in the past few years, despite coming together multiple times on various issues, Kumar is facing a Herculean task, one that will put all his political skills to the test like never before.
This article was first published by TheWire and written by Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashasta
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