Two developments — the split in the Shiv Sena and the fall of the Maha Vikas Aghadi government in Maharashtra, and the political trapeze of Nitish Kumar in Bihar — have injected fresh vigour in Indian politics. Maharashtra and Bihar together have 88 seats in Lok Sabha — a little more than a sixth of the total — and are critical for both the BJP and the Opposition.
In 2019, the BJP, in alliance with the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra and JD(U) and LJP in Bihar, had swept these states, winning 80 seats in all — 40 of which were the BJP’s own. In Maharashtra, the Opposition won just 7 seats — and in Bihar, the Congress got 1 seat and the RJD was wiped out.
Political equations have been turned on their head now. Nitish Kumar has switched back to the Opposition, which is pushing the narrative that the BJP is friendless — or without allies — and is out to finish all other parties. Indeed, since 2019, the BJP has lost three major allies: Shiromani Akali Dal in Punjab, Shiv Sena in Maharashtra, and JD(U) in Bihar.
But can the Opposition, disparate and divided, find a common thread against the BJP for the 2024 elections? Will it be able to find a face it can agree on, to challenge Narendra Modi? Can Nitish Kumar be that face and unifier?
With the Congress, the central pole in the anti-BJP tent, in terminal decline, several other Opposition stalwarts — Mamata Banerjee, Arvind Kejriwal, K Chandrasekhar Rao, Sharad Pawar — nurse national ambitions. But the appeal of almost all of these leaders is confined largely to their states, and none of them appears willing to accept any of the others.
Almost all coalition governments before the Modi era — the United Front, UPA, or even NDA-I — took shape after the elections, with candidates emerging out of negotiations among parties. But the political situation now is completely different from 2004, 1996, or even 1989. The overwhelming dominance of the BJP, the rightward shift of the centre of gravity of mainstream politics, and the hugely successful presidential nature of Modi’s campaign have changed the rules of the game entirely.
An influential section of the Opposition spectrum believes that projecting a face, or even entering into a pre-poll anti-BJP alliance, would be counterproductive — and amount to walking into Modi’s trap. They say there is no face in the Opposition space with a pan-Indian appeal. Others argue that there is a pressing need to present an alternative — a credible narrative and a counter story.
Can Nitish Kumar be the Opposition’s face, if anti-BJP parties do decide to put up one?
Nitish has been Chief Minister of Bihar since 2005, except for a brief period when he stepped aside for Jitan Ram Manjhi in 2014-15. Both his critics and well wishers believe he has national ambitions. He remains a staunch socialist with a record of governance that is unmatched in Bihar.
Secular in outlook, Nitish has stitched an impressive caste coalition in his state. He is one of the few anti-BJP leaders of stature in the Hindi heartland, where the BJP pulverized the Opposition in 2014 and 2019. And he carries no taint of corruption.
But because of his legendary flip-flops, and especially his move to embrace the BJP in 2017, there is a certain deficit of trust in Nitish. Also, he has no appeal in the South, West, or Northeast.
The silence of Mamata Banerjee and Arvind Kejriwal on Nitish’s switch is telling. The Gandhis too have not spoken. Sharad Pawar has merely said that Nitish has taken a wise step, anticipating the crisis that the BJP was planning to create in his state — a comment which fits into the narrative that the BJP devours its allies.
The DMK and Telangana Rashtra Samithi, on the other hand, have appeared enthusiastic. And former Prime Minister H D Deve Gowda has tweeted: “…The developments in Bihar [have] made me think of the days when the Janata Dal parivar was under one roof. It has given three PMs. I am in my advanced years but if the younger generation decides, it can offer a good alternative…”
Which other leader can be a possible contender to lead the Opposition?
The Congress, Mamata, Pawar, and KCR have all said that the Opposition should come together, but no leader has mentioned any specifics; neither has there been any concerted effort at converting speech into action. Kejriwal has maintained a distance from the rest of the Opposition, which he believes suits him politically. Each of these leaders thinks they have a chance — and a roadmap.
* Mamata believes the Trinamool Congress can sweep West Bengal, which has 42 seats, and win a handful of seats elsewhere. Many TMC leaders think the Congress will slide further. Mamata is comparatively better placed than the other contenders.
* With his party’s influence limited to 17 seats in Telangana, KCR can only hope to emerge as a catalytic agent to bring the Opposition together.
* Pawar is head and shoulders above the field in stature. But he is 81, and past his prime. Pawar does not believe a viable Opposition coalition is possible without the Congress.
So where does the Congress stand in all of this?
The Congress is in a dilemma. Rahul Gandhi seems to believe that the family needs to make a tactical retreat from the leadership of the party. His return as Congress president will automatically pitchfork him as the challenger to Modi, a situation he wants to avoid.
With some regional parties challenging the premise of Congress preeminence, the party took a back seat in the selection of opposition candidates for President and Vice President. The party is also ready to explore the option of allowing a non-Congress leader to head, and possibly revive, the largely defunct UPA. But Mamata’s aggression — entering the fray in Goa and trying to lead the Opposition in the selection of the presidential candidate — has not gone down well with the Congress.
Mamata can likely be countered better by Pawar or even Nitish. The Bihar CM sent a signal on Wednesday: he has no “daawedari” on Prime Ministerial ambitions, he said, but the BJP should remember that 2014 is the past and they should worry about 2024.
A section of the Congress feels the party is too caught up with electing its president to give serious thought to rallying the opposition for 2024. The party also hopes to change the political narrative with its four-month, 3500-km Kanyakumari to Kashmir yatra beginning September 7.
It is clear that despite the Bihar switch boosting the anti-BJP parties, the Opposition space remains as fluid as ever.