Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar is the latest BJP rival to capture the imagination of political soothsayers searching for a face that can unite disparate opposition parties and emerge as an alternative to Prime Minister Narendra Modi ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha polls.
Earlier this week, during his three-day visit to the national capital, Nitish met, among others, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, CPM’s Sitaram Yechury, CPI’s D Raja, AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal and HD Kumaraswamy of the JD(S). These meetings were preceded by TRS founder and Telangana CM K Chandrasekhar Rao’s (KCR) visit to Patna for an Opposition unity dialogue with Nitish.
Later this month, Nitish is also expected to attend a rally organised by Om Prakash Chautala’s INLD in Haryana’s Fatehabad. Opposition stalwarts such as former PM and JD(S) chief HD Deve Gowda, NCP supremo Sharad Pawar, National Conference’s Farooq Abdullah, RJD’s Tejashwi Yadav, Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav and Shiromani Akali Dal patriarch Parkash Singh Badal are also likely to be present at the Fatehabad rally.
This packed calendar of political manoeuvres has led to conjectures of Nitish laying his groundwork to emerge as a united Opposition’s choice of prime ministerial candidate against Modi two years from now. Nitish, endowed with unparalleled ideological promiscuity and skills of political somersaults but always guarded about his next move, has predictably denied any such ambitions.
Besides Nitish, his West Bengal counterpart Mamata Banerjee has been following a similar script ever since her Trinamool Congress crushed the BJP at the hustings last year after a bitterly contested assembly poll.
Unlike Nitish, Mamata has kept the Congress at bay – even embarrassing the Grand Old Party and the Gandhis with comments about the non-existence of the UPA coalition. She has aggressively courted other Opposition leaders, reiterating on Thursday (September 8) the need for Opposition unity to defeat the BJP in 2024.
Before Mamata and Nitish, it was Pawar who was being touted as the man who could unite a fragmented opposition. KCR and Kejriwal too have made no secret of harbouring similar ambitions though the latter’s primary concern, particularly since the AAP’s stunning Punjab victory, has been expanding the AAP’s footprint in poll-bound Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh and not opposition unity.
Each of these leaders, satraps in their own right with varying degrees of success in guarding their electoral fiefs and outmanoeuvring the Modi-Amit Shah duo, have maintained that their goal is to unite the Opposition. A decision on the PM face can be taken through consensus once the Opposition unites and defeats the BJP, these leaders have held.
The BJP has made light of Nitish & Co’s efforts. Political observers have repeatedly highlighted that the personal ambitions of leaders of various regional outfits, who see none but themselves as the pre-eminent choice to lead a federal front, is the first, and seemingly insurmountable, hurdle to Opposition unity against the BJP.
Unity efforts in the past
To some, these hectic parleys between regional leaders may be reminiscent of the political churn that India witnessed, albeit in the backdrop of vastly different scenarios, in the late-1970s, late-1980s and the mid-1990s.
The Emergency era brought the Left and the Right of Indian politics together against an autocratic Indira Gandhi’s Congress and gave the country its first, although short-lived, non-Congress regime – the Janata government – with Morarji Desai as the Prime Minister. Similarly, the post-Bofors era allowed multiple regional outfits of different ideological persuasions to unite against the Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress and form the National Front government, led first by VP Singh and then by Chandra Shekhar as prime ministers in the short span of two years that the coalition survived.
In 1996, after the BJP-led coalition government collapsed within 13 days of Atal Behari Vajpayee taking over as PM, regional parties led by the Janata Dal came together in a post-poll alliance, this time to keep the BJP out of power. The resultant United Front government lasted all of two years that saw Deve Gowda and then IK Gujral becoming prime ministers.
In light of the machinations currently being employed by Mamata, Nitish, Pawar and KCR, it could be said that the ongoing experiment to cobble together a federal front against a seemingly invincible BJP has no dearth of leaders who could be the next Morarji or VP Singh or even a Chandra Shekhar, Deve Gowda or Gujral.
What is missing from this motley group of perennial prime ministerial hopefuls, though, is a figure with the stature of a Jayaprakash Narayan or the Machiavellian dexterity of a Harkishan Singh Surjeet who could rally a united opposition behind a new age Morarji or VP while massaging the egos of other claimants who fail to make the cut.
Congress is key
Irrespective of whatever a Mamata or KCR may say, the limitation of a restricted electoral footprint of each regional party makes it clear that no federal front can shore up a majority in the Lok Sabha without the Congress, which remains the direct challenger to Modi’s BJP in some 200-odd constituencies.
As such, any effort to forge Opposition unity will also need to factor the Congress in, with the added challenge of convincing the showrunners of the Grand Old Party that their failure to defeat the BJP on a chunk of these 200 seats will automatically forfeit the party’s claim for premiership.
The strategy needed to make a federal front really work should ideally involve the consent of each constituent to contest a share of Lok Sabha seats that is commensurate with its electoral footprint and winnability against the BJP or its allies and not the inflated egos or imagined popularity of its leaders. Doing so would consolidate the Opposition’s votes instead of splintering it among its constituents.
The big question, however, is whether the wider Opposition has within it a leader or a caucus of leaders who can bring everyone together to agree to such a strategy. It is here that the absence of vintage figures like JP and Surjeet is most palpable.
Given the massive erosion in India’s socio-political milieu since the 1970s and the manner in which the BJP has today converted the government, its probe agencies and even constitutional institutions into a composite weapon of mass subjugation, an Opposition unity forged simply on the strength of public emotions riding on a JP-like call for Sampoorn Kranti (total revolution) is hard to imagine.
Besides, the skeletons that keep tumbling out of the closets of Opposition leaders, who have each enjoyed the fruits of power for various spells of time, make it virtually impossible to hunt for a compelling figure like JP — someone beyond reproach who can act as a fulcrum for opposition unity.
Surjeet, the kingmaker
The next available option for the Opposition then is to conscientiously search its ranks for a master conductor of coalition orchestras in the vein of Surjeet, the CPM stalwart who played a pivotal role in installing VP Singh, Deve Gowda and Gujral as prime ministers and, in 2004, delivered to the Congress-led UPA coalition the outside support of the Left Front that allowed Manmohan Singh to become the Prime Minister.
Surjeet had never contested a direct election to an assembly or the Lok Sabha and had served as a Rajya Sabha MP just once (between 1978 and 1984). He was not someone who could sway public sentiment with rambunctious speeches nor was he a man with a captive vote bank or mass appeal.
Yet, what he possessed was, arguably, more important than the qualities he lacked – the absence of personal ambition to hold high offices coupled with wit, charm and an uncanny ability to negotiate tough bargains. That he enjoyed an excellent personal rapport with frontline leaders of most parties and could leverage these equations while navigating difficult political settlements was an added bonus for the late comrade.
Surjeet’s contentment at being a kingmaker but never the king is what Mamata, KCR, Nitish, Kejriwal and Pawar all lack. This glaring deficiency disqualifies them from being negotiators of Opposition unity. The perception that all of them, even the octogenarian Pawar, covet the prime ministership is a key cause for the trust deficit among these leaders. Evidently then, these satraps need to look beyond themselves in their search for a unifying figure or a band of leaders from different opposition outfits who can draft a unity blueprint.
Nitish could solicit help from the stables of the erstwhile Janata Dal that had splintered into multiple offshoots, including the INLD, SP, RLD, JD (S), JD (U) and the LJP. He could seek the guidance of Deve Gowda, Chautala or the ailing Yadav troika of Mulayam Singh, Lalu Prasad and Sharad Yadav — Nitish’s JD (U) is now an ally of Lalu’s RJD, of which Sharad is also a member — to reunite the Janata Parivar.
Deve Gowda, Lalu and Sharad, despite their indifferent health, may work as a team to bring the former Janata constituents together and secure at least one flank of Opposition unity that, with the additional support of the Congress, could consolidate an anti-BJP front across multi-party states such as Haryana, Karnataka, Bihar, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh. That’s nearly 200 Lok Sabha seats.
Yashwant Sinha and Margaret Alva, the unsuccessful ‘united opposition’ candidates in the recently concluded presidential and vice-presidential elections, respectively, may also be called upon to do their bit.
Another interesting choice could be Manmohan Singh. The former PM still commands the respect of almost every key Opposition leader but his failing health may not allow him to immerse himself in the heavy lifting that a task such as a position would require. Yet, he may be urged to preside over negotiations as a patron of sorts with Gowda, Lalu, Sinha, Yechury and other stalwarts aiding him in the effort.