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Nitish Kumar needs more than poll math and anti-BJPism to present a strong counter narrative

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Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar on Sunday said all non-BJP parties will need to unite to defeat the BJP in the 2019 general election and “save democracy”. The statement is a tacit admission that the BJP is now the pole of national politics and a divided opposition is no match for the party. The political logic of an anti-BJP front comes from Ram Manohar Lohia’s formulations on building a rainbow coalition against the Congress, the party of government then, in the 1960s. The BJP is the new Congress, according to Nitish. But Lohia’s anti-Congress coalitions were short-lived — internal contradictions consumed them. Five decades later, Nitish seems convinced of the viability of a united front politics, but it will have to offer a more innovative and substantive agenda than mere anti-BJPism to gain electoral appeal nationally.

A national pre-poll opposition alliance could be a non-starter due to the present nature of Indian politics. Barring the Congress and the BJP, the influence of most parties is limited to one or two states. Local undercurrents prevent the expansion of state-specific alliances to the national level. The experience of the Mahagathbandhan in Bihar, which saw Nitish, Lalu Prasad and the Congress come together, is an instructive example. The Mahagathbandhan was seen as the blueprint for an anti-BJP national coalition after its success in the Bihar assembly polls. However, it didn’t take off in Assam, where the BJP was seen to be on the upswing, like in Bihar. In the absence of the SP or BSP, both opposed to the BJP but cool to any Mahagathbandhan, the alliance is likely to be ineffectual in UP. The communist Left and the Congress are together in West Bengal to defeat the Trinamool Congress and the BJP. But the political dynamic in Kerala prevents them from coming together in that state. Regional parties run the show in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Tamil Nadu, which together send 81 MPs to the Lok Sabha. But none of them have professed any special like or dislike for the BJP. Their choice of coalition in the past has been influenced by concerns of power and local needs rather than any grand ideological scheme. The AAP, with its unique brand of civic politics, is opposed to the BJP and close to Nitish, but will it join a national coalition that includes the Congress? Both the NDA and UPA were post-poll coalitions that emerged out of a fragmented mandate and the reluctance of parties to face interim polls.

The opposition counter-narrative will need more than mere anti-BJP, or anti-Narendra Modi, sentiment. That had its run in the 2014 general election. Nor can the strategy be about arithmetic, which may not even add up. The Mahagathbandhan won Bihar because the alliance was backed by Nitish’s governance model. He needs to elaborate on a plan of action if his talk of an alternative to Modi is to win the electorate’s confidence.