On May 15, Bihar Chief Minister and JD(U) national president Nitish Kumar ruled himself out of the race to be Prime Minister in 2019. He said was a just a leader of a small party, and accepted that Narendra Modi got the top post because he was “capable”.
Why did Nitish choose to say this, and at this time? There could be 2 reasons — one, a response to his immediate situation; two, a longer-term strategic manoeuvre.
Nitish had not faced the media since his alliance partner Lalu Prasad faced fresh allegations of corruption. He would have anticipated questions on his role in the Presidential election. He would’ve remembered that senior RJD leader Raghuvansh Prasad Singh would often mock him as the leader of a 2 Lok Sabha-MP party who nursed Prime Ministerial ambitions. He would also have sensed that his pulling out of the UP elections at the last moment, and getting a meagre 46,000 votes in the MCD elections, would be linked to a desperate attempt to pitchfork himself into national politics. And he was aware that several Opposition leaders were not comfortable with his “national” posturing.
So Nitish took fresh guard — with the intention of playing a more defensive game. By ruling himself out of the PM race, and acknowledging the limited strength and presence of his JD(U), he sought to blunt the most obvious media questions. By underlining that his mandate was limited to Bihar, he sought to signal to leaders within his alliance to stop describing him as PM material, and allow him to do his politics peacefully, strategically and diplomatically.
In the longer term, Nitish seeks to continue working for Opposition unity — but at his own pace and terms.
He has been working assiduously to ensure the Opposition is able to put up a common candidate for President. He has met Congress president Sonia Gandhi, Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, and DMK MP Kanimozhi. Lalu and he will attend a big rally in Chennai to celebrate DMK patriarch M Karunanidhi’s 94th birthday in the first week of June. Lalu has announced a massive rally in Patna in August, to which all top Opposition leaders have been invited.
Nitish’s first objective is to make the process of forging Opposition unity friction-free. His advisers believe this is not the time to discuss the leadership of the possible Opposition alliance. Nitish would, at best, want to be the convener of Opposition unity, and has been stressing to other anti-BJP leaders that it is time to unite against the ruling party. It is not important at this stage that an individual emerges as the nucleus of anti-BJP politics; the idea of a combined and strong Opposition should instead be at the forefront.
Any attempt to project Nitish as the Opposition face against Modi could cause heartburn to leaders like Sharad Pawar and Mamata Banerjee. The toughest challenge would be to bring together Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati; Mamata and the Left. This is where Nitish’s statement on May 15 — that “the people will choose the next PM; someone in whom they find the capability” — makes sense.
By his statement, Nitish has also invited the Congress to make its stand clear on leadership — something that can make or mar Opposition unity. If the Congress remains hell bent on projecting Rahul Gandhi as the Opposition’s face, it might end up incentivising work on a possible third front.
But as of now, Nitish seems to be wagering that the best chance for Opposition unity lies around the idea of collective leadership. To this end, he has withdrawn himself from the race for now — but probably fancies himself as the leader of an alternative national discourse. He knows he is the only Opposition CM — with the exception of the now fading Arvind Kejriwal — who has been successful in defeating the Modi-led BJP. The JD(U) would want the Opposition to discuss Nitish, rather than Nitish and his party tom-tomming the JD(U) president.