Nitish Kumar’s exit from the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and reunion with the Mahagathbandhan (Grand Alliance) has rekindled the hopes of anti-BJP voters who were dismayed by the slow disintegration of the Congress and lack of opposition unity. It has also given rise to speculation about Mr Kumar emerging as the Opposition’s candidate against Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2024.
This is the second time in his political career that Mr Kumar is being seen as a probable PM candidate of the Opposition. The first time was in the early 2010s. He had won a huge majority at the assembly elections in 2010. He was at the peak of his popularity across the nation as the man who had rescued Bihar from the abyss of poverty and stagnation. He had also earned great respect for openly opposing Mr Modi and his brand of aggressive Hindutva despite being in alliance with the BJP. No wonder, in the build-up to the 2014 general election, he emerged as the strongest challenger to Mr Modi in the public perception.
But he did not actually get to be the challenger. For, after he walked out of the NDA following Mr Modi’s nomination as the PM candidate by the BJP national executive in Goa in June 2013, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) did not reach out to include his Janata Dal (United) in the alliance and make him its PM nominee. Nor did he seek an alliance with the UPA. The result was that his fight against Mr Modi remained confined to Bihar. It was more a fight to stop Mr Modi seizing his political territory. And fighting alone, Mr Kumar was battered.
Today he is in a better position. He is a part of the Mahagathbandhan, an alliance that has a significant overlap with the UPA. And he remains acceptable to the centre-left sections despite his pro-diversity image having been dented by his party’s support, or lack of strong opposition, to the Modi government on the status of Jammu & Kashmir and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act.
One of the reasons could be his political credentials. He is seen as an incorruptible, thinking, decisive, bold, uncompromising politician, qualities that Mr Modi is also admired for. So he seems to fit the bill for a credible alternative. But there are many roadblocks on Mr Kumar’s way to becoming the opposition’s PM candidate.
Rahul Gandhi may be the UPA’s foremost choice, but it is unlikely he may agree. Since Mr Gandhi does not want anyone from his family to take the Congress president’s office, he might also refuse to be the UPA candidate against Mr Modi. If his purpose in getting a non-Gandhi as the party chief is to deny the BJP room to attack the Congress for dynastic politics, he would not let himself or his sister Priyanka Vadra be the UPA’s nominee. In the event of a search for the best candidates from outside the family, Mr Kumar could be one.
However, it is also possible that if Mr Gandhi or Ms Vadra is not the candidate, the Congress may choose someone else from the party. And there Mr Kumar would lose out. No constituent can object to the idea as it has been the norm that the leader of the largest party in an alliance leads the joint electoral front.
There is a possibility of Mr Kumar finding more support among other opposition parties. He can expect the backing of the Lohiaite ‘Janata parivar’ that includes his own party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), the Janata Dal (Secular), the Samajwadi Party and the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD). JD(S) president HD Deve Gowda has already endorsed him indirectly. The RJD is with him. The Samajwadi Party and the INLD, too, might endorse him.
The Trinamool Congress (TMC) and the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) have been questioning the legitimacy of the Congress to lead the opposition against Mr Modi. They might be opposed to Mr Gandhi or another Congressperson as the united opposition candidate. Mr Kumar might find some acceptance there.
Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao’s recent meeting with Nitish Kumar in Patna is significant. Asked at a joint press conference whether Mr Kumar would be the opposition candidate against Mr Modi, Mr Rao said, “Nitish Kumar is among the best and most senior leaders in the country. I am nobody to decide. This question will be decided when the opposition parties sit together.”
If nothing else, the remarks suggest the TRS looks upon Mr Kumar with favour. This is a departure from its earlier stance. For the TRS, like the TMC, had been projecting itself as a new fulcrum of opposition unity and trying hard to pull other parties away from the Congress, the old fulcrum. KCR’s favourable words for Mr Kumar point to the possibility that the TRS is not averse to supporting a PM candidate from within the Congress-led alliance, provided it is not a Congressperson.
There is no indication yet how the TMC might look at Mr Kumar. There is a personal chemistry between him and Mamata Banerjee, of course, but we cannot ignore her efforts to position herself for a national role. She convened two meetings of opposition parties and has held discussions with several leaders, including Sharad Pawar.
Nobody can fault Ms Banerjee for having the ambition to become the Prime Minister. She has served as the Chief Minister of West Bengal for a long time and the next elevation in her career should be the PM’s office. That would be the national role she would be looking at, rather than merely being a minister at the Centre, as she has already been there.
That means there could be a multiplicity of opposition fronts. In such a situation, the chances of Mr Kumar’s candidature may dim.
Arun Sinha is an independent journalist and author of the books Nitish Kumar and the Rise of Bihar and The Battle for Bihar.