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By Arun Sinha

Nitish Kumar’s exit from the NDA (National Democratic Alliance) and his reunion with the Mahagathbandhan (Grand Alliance) has rekindled the hopes of the anti-BJP voters across the country who were wrestling with pessimism bred by the slow disintegration of the Congress and no signs of opposition unity. Alongside, it has also given rise to speculations over the probability of Nitish Kumar emerging as the opposition’s prime ministerial candidate against Narendra Modi in 2024.

Previous Tryst

This is the second time in his political career that Nitish Kumar is being seen as a probable opposition PM candidate. The first time was in the early 2010s. He had won a huge majority at the Assembly elections in 2010. He was then at the peak of his popularity across the nation as the man who rescued Bihar from the abyss of poverty and stagnation. He had also earned tremendous respect for openly opposing Modi and his brand of aggressive Hindutva despite being in alliance with the BJP. No wonder, in the build-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha poll he emerged as the strongest challenger to Modi in public perception.

But he did not actually get to be Modi’s challenger. For, after he walked out of the NDA following Modi’s nomination as the PM candidate by the BJP national executive in Goa in June 2013, the UPA (United Progressive Alliance) did not reach out to him with a proposal to include his party, the Janata Dal (United), into the alliance and to make him their PM nominee. Nor did he seek any alliance with the UPA. The result was that his fight against Modi in 2014 remained confined to Bihar. It was more a fight to stop Modi from seizing his political territory than a fight to stop him from becoming prime minister. And, fighting alone, he was battered miserably.

In Better Position Now

Today he is in a better position. He is a part of the Mahagathbandhan, an alliance whose significant part overlaps with the UPA’s. And not unsurprisingly, he is acceptable to the centre-left sections despite the fact that his pro-diversity image has been dented by his party’s support or lack of strong opposition to the Modi government’s laws on the status of Jammu & Kashmir and Citizenship (Amendment) Act.

One of the reasons could be his political credentials. He is seen as an incorruptible, thinking, decisive, bold and uncompromising politician. Modi is admired for the same qualities. So Nitish seems to fit the bill for a credible alternative to Modi.

Roadblocks on Way

However, there are many roadblocks on Nitish’s way to the opposition PM’s candidacy. First, Rahul Gandhi may be the topmost choice of the UPA. There are speculations that he might not accept it. Since he does not want anyone from his family to take the Congress president’s office, he might also refuse to be the UPA candidate against Modi. For, if his purpose in getting a non-Gandhi person as the party chief is to deny the BJP any room to attack the party for promoting dynastic politics, he would not let himself or Priyanka be the UPA’s nominee. If that really happens, there will be a search for the best candidates outside the Gandhi family and Nitish Kumar could be among them.

However, it is likely that if Rahul or Priyanka is not the candidate, the Congress would choose someone else from the party. And there Nitish would lose out. No constituent can object to the idea as it has been the norm that the leader of the largest constituent happens to be the leader of the joint electoral or ruling front.

Some Acceptance

There is a probability that Nitish may find more support among the opposition parties other than the Congress. He can expect the backing of the Lohiaite ‘Janata Dal 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 indirectly endorsed him. The RJD is with him. The Samajwadi Party and 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 front against Modi. They might be opposed to Rahul or any other Congressperson as a united opposition candidate. Nitish might find some acceptance there.

Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrashekhar Rao’s recent meeting with Nitish Kumar in Patna holds a major significance in this regard. When asked at a joint press conference whether Nitish would be the opposition candidate against Modi, Rao said, “Nitish Kumar is among the best and senior-most leaders in the country. I am nobody to make a decision. This question will be decided when the opposition parties sit together.” If nothing else, his remarks suggested the TRS looked at Nitish with favour as a probable candidate.

It marked a departure for the TRS from its earlier stance. For, the TRS, much like the TMC, has been projecting itself as a new fulcrum of opposition unity and trying hard to pull other opposition parties away from the Congress, the old fulcrum. Chandrashekhar Rao’s favourable words for Nitish point to a probability that the TRS was not averse to the idea of supporting a PM candidate from within the Congress-led alliance, provided it was not a Congressperson.

There is no indication yet how the TMC might look at Nitish. There is personal chemistry between him and Mamata Banerjee of course, but at the same time we cannot ignore that she has been making efforts to position herself for a “national role”. She convened two meetings of opposition parties and has held discussions with leaders including Sharad Pawar.

Nobody can fault Mamata for having the ambition to become 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 PM’s office. That would be the “national role” she would be looking at, rather than as a minister at the Centre since she had already been there. That means there could be a multiplicity of opposition fronts. In such a situation, the chances of Nitish’s candidature may get dimmer.

(The writer is an independent journalist and the author of ‘Nitish Kumar and the Rise of Bihar’ and ‘The Battle for Bihar’.)

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Author: Howard Caldwell