Bihar Chief Minister and Janata Dal (United) leader Nitish Kumar was in New Delhi last week. Between tea, lunch, and evening snacks, he met at least 10 Opposition leaders. Coming out of each meeting, he affably engaged with the media, advocating ‘Opposition unity’ for the greater good of the nation and practically projecting himself as the person most capable of delivering a critical dose to keep Indian democracy alive.
Veteran of coalition politics
Coalition politics is not alien terrain for Mr. Kumar, who started his political journey in 1977. At the end of the 19-month Emergency, an ideologically disparate group of leaders came together to form the Janata Party. It was a political development fraught with tension, with three prime ministerial hopefuls vying for power. Eventually, the Janata Party, between its two Prime Ministers, Morarji Desai and Charan Singh, survived less than three years.
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Mr. Kumar also had a front-row seat during the messy Janata Dal years in power, starting in 1989, when again the clash between V.P. Singh, Devi Lal, and Chandra Shekhar did not allow the government to last an entire term, and the Congress returned to power in 1991. In both these cases, the alliance concretised before the general elections, but the agreement could not hold for long.
The United Front (UF) of 1996 was the second kind of experiment when 13 parties came together after a fractured verdict in the Lok Sabha elections. Unlike the previous two coalition experiments which were put together on an anti-Congress platform, the UF was India’s first national anti-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) front. The agenda of this unity, it was clearly stated, was to keep the BJP, which had for the first time emerged as the single largest party in Lok Sabha, out of power. The UF managed to do so for a little more than two years.
The NDA, UPA shift
This is not to say that coalition politics is not viable. It was successful thereafter, especially from 1999 to 2014, with the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) completing its full term after its previous government formed in 1998 collapsed, and then the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) completing two full terms. Both these alliances had two key differences from the earlier three examples. One, at least one of the allies had disproportionately greater electoral strength than the others, keeping the core of the alliance stable. And two, the loose ends in both were tied up post-poll, constraining the bargaining power of allies to their numerical strength in Parliament.
Though Mr. Kumar has not yet spelled out the form of opposition unity that he envisions, his Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) ally and Deputy Chief Minister, Tejashwi Yadav, is already talking about conceding a ‘seat here or there’ and letting go of one’s ego for the greater national interest. He has also asserted that Congress should allow regional forces to be in the ‘driver’s seat’. This very proposition could throw a spanner in the works and make opposition unity elusive.
Tensions at the State-level
Theoretically speaking, Mr. Kumar’s efforts to at least begin a dialogue with the opposition parties is a significant political development, but can opposition unity be pulled off? At least three opposition parties — the Trinamool Congress, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), and the Telangana Rashtra Samithi — have refused to work with the Congress. Even if Mr. Kumar manages to convince Congress not to claim the driver’s seat, it is not certain that a pre-poll opposition alliance nationwide would be without tensions. In Punjab, it would mean that the Congress would cede space for the AAP, and in Telangana for the TRS. Both these States are vital for Congress’s revival. In West Bengal, the Left parties would have to reconcile to negligible electoral space. In Uttar Pradesh, where the Congress has invested much energy and capital, with party general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra promising to revive the party’s fortunes, it would mean drastically shrinking its campaign space, and giving primacy in the opposition to the Samajwadi Party.
Mr. Kumar is no novice and has been in the Chief Minister’s chair for 17 years, having been in alliance, at different times, with the BJP, the Congress, and the RJD. More than anyone else, he would be aware of these obvious imponderables. He has repeatedly clarified that he does not aspire to be the prime ministerial face of the opposition and that he does not foresee a Narendra Modi vs Nitish Kumar battle.
So then what is Mr. Kumar’s current post-realignment strategy aimed at? Is he attempting to carve out a bigger role for himself in New Delhi, in anticipation of voter fatigue in the next Bihar assembly elections scheduled for 2025? Is it his swan song before he rides into the sunset?
Opening up possibilities
Politics is an exercise in optimism, in audaciously articulating possibilities. By stirring up the opposition cauldron in New Delhi with these questions, Mr. Kumar is also rebranding himself in Bihar, from being a “Paltu Ram”, a moniker given to him by the BJP for his various somersaults, to being a statesman who adapts to change.