Can the coming together of Nitish Kumar and Rahul Gandhi make the Opposition tick in 2024?
Like Rahul, Nitish too does not claim that he is a potential PM material from the opposition ranks, and they both have the common ambition of throwing Modi out of power after a decade
New Delhi: If you keep the credibility quotient of Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar aside for a moment, you can not but regard his meeting with Congress leader Rahul Gandhi as a significant move to forge an Opposition unity against Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Rahul's support for Nitish's efforts against the BJP can bolster the chances of the opposition parties coming together for the 2024 Lok Sabha polls even if the issue of who will be the prime minister candidate against Modi is very elusive.
Rahul's backing for Nitish could mean that the latter has a head start compared to other ambitious Opposition leaders in steering a political arrangement that could offer an alternative choice to voters.
To date, Rahul Gandhi has not been impressed with any opposition leader-- be it Mamata Banerjee, Tejashwi Yadav, Sharad Pawar, K Chandrasekhar Rao, H D Kumaraswamy, M K Stalin, and Uddhav Thackeray.
Rahul's experiences with Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati too turned bitter after alliances with their parties failed to bring electoral dividends for them or the Congress.
Rahul has said so many times that he is not so keen about being projected as a PM candidate as he is about finding a route to end the BJP's decade-long rule.
Nitish too does not claim that he is PM material for the opposition-- though everyone knows that his decision to dump the BJP in Bihar two years before the Lok Sabha polls has a lot to do with his own ambition.
It is, therefore, very significant that Nitish and Rahul are learnt to have discussed ways to unseat the BJP by targeting Modi's nominees in most parliamentary constituencies.
Rahul's meeting with Nitish was the first since the latter walked out of the NDA in Bihar for the second time in a decade and formed a Mahagathbandhan government with the RJD, Congress and outside support of the Left. The Congress is an ally in the Mahagatbandhan, or grand alliance, and has two Ministers in the Bihar Cabinet.
Nitish's last meeting with the Congress leaders was when he met party chief Sonia Gandhi in April 2017, just two months before he broke ties with the RJD over corruption cases against then Deputy Chief Minister Tejashwi Yadav and returned to the NDA.
Nitish's meeting with Rahul was under different circumstances on September 5.
Rahul, who is very happy that Nitish broke away from the BJP, had spoken about the Opposition parties coming together to end the Modi Raj at his rally in Delhi on September 4.
Actually, it was Sonia Gandhi who had suggested way back in 2016 to Mamata Banerjee that all opposition parties must agree on putting up one common candidate against the BJP or the NDA in each of the 543 Lok Sabha constituencies. That would ensure a "sure" defeat of BJP candidates as a majority of them only win with less than 30-40 per cent votes.
But Mamata had wanted Sonia to agree that the Congress would not insist on the leadership of the arrangement against the BJP and let the regional satraps play their role.
Sonia did not mince words in conveying to Mamata that the Opposition parties could not think of an alternative to the BJP rule at the centre without the Congress.
Nitish appears to have a cue from Sonia's old formula that every opposition party that is serious about ousting Modi from power must make sacrifices wherever necessary.
Just before Nitish broke ties with the BJP, the buzz in Patna was that Sonia had spoken to Lalu Prasad Yadav to convey that she was not blind to any ambition for the Congress or Rahul and rather wanted all efforts to be directed to end the BJP rule.
In this context, Sonia apparently wanted neither Lalu nor Rabri Devi to insist on Tejashwi Yadav becoming CM of Bihar if Nitish was breaking away from the BJP.
That is how Rabri Devi, who was keener than Lalu to see her son Tejashwi as CM, accepted the proposal to make Nitish again CM of the Mahagatbandhan.
Rabri had nurtured a serious grouse against Nitish for dumping the RJD to embrace the BJP again in 2017, which Nitish has now described as a "grave mistake."
One may recall that, in 2013, when Nitish was apprehensive about the rise of Modi on the national scene, then finance minister P Chidambaram had sought to convince the Bihar CM that the Congress is amenable to his becoming the PM if it does not get enough numbers on its own in 2014.
That was one of the reasons why Nitish parted ways with the BJP before Modi assumed power in 2014.
Cut to 2022-24, Sonia and Rahul may still find Nitish easier to deal with than any other Opposition leader.
Nitish's USP today is not so much about being "Sushan Babu" (good governance leader) but being the architect of social engineering that unites non-Yadav OBCs, Most Backward Classes (MBCs) and Maha Dalits.
Of course, Nitish will play his card carefully as he meets several Opposition leaders including the NCP's Sarad Pawar, the AAP's Arvind Kejriwal and JDS supremo H D Kumaraswamy during his visit to Delhi. He is also likely to meet Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav and leaders from the Left parties.
Among the Opposition leaders, Mamata Banerjee will be the one who will not be excited by Nitish's candidature for the top slot. She will see the importance of Nitish as the one factor that curbs her plans for a national role.
Similarly, Odisha CM Naveen Patnaik is wary of other Opposition leaders. His approach is rather to wait and see till the post-2024 poll scenario. However, Janata Dal(U) leaders want Nitish to engage Patnaik soon.
Telangana Rashtra Samithi president and Telangana Chief Minister K. Chandrashekhar Rao met Nitish in Patna last week.
Nitish has so far rooted for a broad-based Opposition unity across the country by asserting that the parties would fare better if they contested the 2024 Lok Sabha elections together against the BJP.
“We will achieve huge success if we contest the elections in a united manner. I am not talking about any figure or the number of seats,” Nitish has said.
Nitish knows that other Opposition leaders can throw a spanner in his work. That is why he keeps insisting that “the coming together of the Opposition will create a good mahaul (atmosphere). I have no desire and no aspiration to become Prime Minister."