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  Opinion   Columnists  09 Jan 2024  Sunil Gatade | Nitish Kumar is a ‘non-starter’ as INDIA alliance readies for polls

Sunil Gatade | Nitish Kumar is a ‘non-starter’ as INDIA alliance readies for polls

The writer is a senior journalist based in New Delhi.
Published : Jan 9, 2024, 11:16 pm IST
Updated : Jan 9, 2024, 11:16 pm IST

Even his detractors agree that Nitish Kumar is a consummate player on the political chessboard

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. (PTI)
 Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. (PTI)

Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar may well get some position in the INDIA alliance later this month, but he looks unlikely to be cut out for bigger things after the Lok Sabha polls.

His failure to secure such a post so far shows the lukewarm attitude in the 28-member group towards the 72-year-old leader despite his being the longest-serving CM on the non-BJP side.

For the faithful, Nitish Kumar may have raised his credibility with the ambitious Bihar caste census despite the Centre’s ambivalent stance, but he faces several issues within the Opposition grouping.  

It’s too late for him to emerge as the hot favourite given the baggage he carries. There was speculation till some time back that he could again somersault and make a deal with the BJP. This wasn’t going to endear him to the Opposition.

Of course, by becoming CM on August 10, 2022, for the eighth time in 22 years, Mr Kumar has dominated Bihar’s politics -- with or without the BJP or the RJD.

Even if he wasn’t hobnobbing with the BJP, the fact there was so much speculation reflects the credibility and character of the Opposition leader who has often been branded as “Paltu Ram” by his detractors. Mr Kumar is neither V.P. Singh nor Jayaprakash Narayan.

As a political commentator said bluntly: “Nitish Kumar probably holds a record for the number of times he has ditched his allies, only to ally with them again. There is, clearly, nothing ideological about his choice of partners -- Nitish Kumar’s decisions seem governed by one goal alone: how to keep his seat of power warm.”

Unlike six years ago, the BJP has little respect or regard for the Bihar CM, who it feels is losing ground, given the complexities of caste politics in Bihar. The BJP’s “sahi disha, spasht niti” is not to have any truck with laggards. This is especially in the Modi-Shah “New BJP”: they don’t take time to cut the deadwood.

Despite being CM for 18 years, Nitish Kumar’s failure to emerge as the “Mamata Banerjee” of Bihar shows his limitations. With the image of “Sushasan Babu”, Nitish has always punched above his weight in Bihar’s politics and now wants to do so at the national level. But there are too many if’s and but’s.

Six years back, Nitish Kumar was a prominent Opposition face to take on Narendra Modi. But then he shocked the entire Opposition by joining hands with the BJP overnight. Now the past is catching up with him in an unpleasant way.

Last month, the suggestion at the Opposition alliance meeting to have Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge as the bloc’s PM candidate came as a bolt from the blue for Nitish, though he might be denying it. What was more, it came from Trinamul Congress supremo Mamata Banerjee, and was lapped up enthusiastically by AAP’s Arvind Kejriwal and others. It was a signal Nitish Kumar should not entertain visions like “Mungeri lal ke hassen sapne”. 

Time will tell whether or not Mr Kharge will be the Opposition’s PM’s “face” against Narendra Modi. But that the suggestion came from Ms Banerjee and was seconded by the AAP and others like the CPI(M-L)’s Dipankar Mukherjee from Bihar, shows the comfort level enjoyed by the Congress president within the 28-member alliance. By pitching for Mr Kharge, they clearly signalled their unwillingness to have Rahul Gandhi as the PM candidate.

It also means the allies have indicated the Congress should remain in the leadership role of INDIA for it to remain cohesive and competitive. The tail cannot wag the dog.

Whether Mr Kharge ultimately becomes the alliance’s top choice for PM is immaterial: what is important is that there is a leader in the largest party in INDIA who is looked up to by smaller players for the leadership role gives it much-needed stability.

Mr Kharge’s latest remark that INDIA’s “Kaun banega crorepati?” will be soon decided at the alliance’s next meeting shows much churning is going on within the grouping to put its best foot forward by having a hassle-free leadership structure. One must realise that the NDA, which now boasts 38 members, has no convenor in the past 10 years and none of the BJP’s allies have made such a demand or dared to make such a demand. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and home minister Amit Shah detest having any other centre of power.

One line of thinking in the Opposition bloc is that greater ambivalence on the PM candidate issue is better, leaving the BJP clueless on how to take ahead its plank of “Who against Modi?”.  This ambivalence itself means a different kind of politics: to give one message to those within as well as to the other side.

The strategy of “more the merrier” on PM candidates in the Opposition alliance could help its constituents fight decisively and unitedly -- goes one line of argument.

It does not mean something will not be done to placate Nitish Kumar, who is now back as JD(U) president by removing Lalan Singh from the post. This also shows Nitish Kumar is fighting on more than one front.

Even his detractors agree that Nitish Kumar is a consummate player on the political chessboard and understands the intricacies of staying put in not-so-easy times.

With the BJP at its combative best, whipping up a “Ram lahar” ahead of the Lok Sabha elections, the earlier the Opposition alliance understands the game of coming up with an alternative narrative and a compelling one and builds up trust and affinity towards it, the better it would be. Other things can wait. There is no level playing field and the battle ahead will be arduous and treacherous.

Tags: bihar cm nitish kumar, opposition alliance, india alliance