Nitish Aayog: Is the stage being set for him as Opposition faces against Modi?

FOR MANY in Opposition, Nitish Kumar’s decision to snap ties with the BJP was a coup — a payback in the same coin to the ruling party which they say is out to “destabilise” non-BJP governments in states. But was Kumar merely trying to save his party, Janata Dal (United), from a split, or is there more to his resignation than meets the eye?

With less than two years for the Lok Sabha elections in April-May 2024, Nitish Kumar emerging as a consensus candidate of a reconfigured alliance of Opposition parties to challenge Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a possibility many in the Opposition are already discussing.

While leaders say it is early to link the JD(U)-BJP split with the Opposition strategy for 2024 — apart from the fact that the new RJD-JD(U)-Congress-Left alliance in Bihar can be a formidable front against the BJP — they reckon that Kumar’s shift to the Opposition camp can act as a catalyst for anti-BJP parties. A socialist veteran of stature, Kumar is perceived to be non-corrupt with a proven governance track record.

Kumar may be acceptable to many in the Opposition who are not comfortable with the Congress leading the grouping. NCP chief Sharad Pawar is an acceptable face, but he is past his prime. The Congress also realizes that. The grand old party also needs a credible alternative on its side to deal with outliers like the Trinamool Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party. Kumar had in the evening thanked both Rahul and Sonia Gandhi for Congress’s support to the new gatbandhan.

There is already talk in the Congress that the Gandhis could take a tactical retreat from the leadership of the party. Sources said Rahul Gandhi is not keen to return as Congress president and he does not want anyone from the family to head the party. So, is the grand old party willing to accept a non-Congress leader as the head of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) to revive the virtually non-existent alliance? It seems like a logical conclusion if the Gandhi family does make way for a non-Gandhi as party president.

A terse statement put out by the Congress on Tuesday — announcing its decision to advance the start of the proposed Kanyakumari to Kashmir yatra to ?September 7? from October 2 — said Congress workers and leaders including Rahul Gandhi will “participate” in the yatra. It is not clear whether Rahul will lead the yatra. Sources said the word “participate” stemmed from a discussion some of the senior leaders had with Rahul earlier.

The party is preparing to elect a new President to replace Sonia Gandhi? between August 21 and September 20. Its decision to advance the yatra hence was surprising. Some senior Congress leaders said it was “too premature” to talk about Kumar emerging as a challenger to Modi in 2024 – although there are already talks of him handing over the Bihar baton to Rashtriya Janata Dal’s Tejashwi Yadav within a year. If he switches to national politics, the 71-year-old Kumar can appeal to the Hindi heartland where the opposition desperately needs a face and seats.

Some Congress leaders say the opposition has to win big in the southern states and in Maharashtra to stop the BJP in its tracks in 2024. “Kumar will have no appeal in the south and Maharashtra. So I am not enthusiastic about this theory,” one Congress leader said.

Nitish Kumar with JD(U) National president Lalan Singh and Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Tejashwi Yadav, in Patna, Aug. 9, 2022. (PTI)

Another leader said in politics momentum picks up gradually. “And we need to claw back in the North to stop the BJP. In the south, the DMK is on a strong wicket in Tamil Nadu. In Kerala, it doesn’t matter whether we win or the Left does. We have a fair chance of staging a comeback in Karnataka. In Telangana, the TRS also needs to be part of the national narrative to take on the BJP,” he said.

Nitish Kumar and Tejashwi Yadav interact with the media after meeting Bihar Governor Phagu Chauhan, in Patna. Kumar said he submitted a list of 164 MLAs to the governor. (PTI)

As far as Bihar is concerned, the RJD, Congress and the Left frankly did not have much option but to back Kumar once he told them he had decided to end his alliance with the BJP. Tejashwi Yadav was not keen to join hands with Kumar again. But the political context has changed, a senior RJD leader said. The narrative was that there was an apprehension that the BJP was trying to engineer defections in JD(U), RJD and the Congress, similar to what happened with the Shiv Sena in experiment. “So there wasn’t much of an option for us,” he said.

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