Nitish Kumar, clearly, has not lost his political reflexes. He demonstrated that last week, when he swiftly anticipated the moves of – and dealt with – his erstwhile alliance partner, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which was planning to depose him, split his party, the Janata Dal-United (JD-U), and install a new Chief Minister and government. Now, as he begins another innings at the head of a Mahagathbandhan government, all eyes are on his next move.
Is he the challenger to Narendra Modi, the leader that the Opposition has been looking for? Because, by forming a government in Bihar with the Lalu Prasad Yadav-headed Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and which is backed by the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), an ideologically cohesive combination (unlike the one he presided over with the BJP) less than two years ahead of the next general elections in 2024, he has given notice to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his party.
After Mamata Banerjee, Nitish Kumar may be the challenger to Narendra Modi, the leader that the Opposition has been looking for.
But clearly, the road ahead will be difficult: not only will Kumar have to bring the opposition parties onto one platform, but he will also have to deal with the BJP.
If investigation agencies are being used in West Bengal, they could well be used in Bihar. Will the new JD(U)-RJD combine be able to withstand the pressure?
The likelihood of Kumar emerging as the principal challenger to Modi will depend also on the Congress, still the country’s largest opposition party.
'No PM Ambitions'
Publicly, Kumar is holding his cards close to his chest. To a question by a reporter, he said, choosing his words carefully, that prime ministerial ambitions were not on his mind right now. But he added that he would try to unite Opposition parties and that all of them should work together. He said, “All of us will talk about issues of the people and how we can have a better societal environment.”
These remarks, made in the national capital, came on the heels of a provocative question he had posed shortly after being sworn in as Chief Minister in Patna on 10 August. There, he had taken a swipe at Modi: “He won in 2014, but will he win in 2024?”
How Mamata Was Stifled
In the wake of the spectacular victory that the JD(U)-RJD combine saw in the assembly elections in 2015 – less than a year after Modi’s spectacular arrival in Delhi – Kumar was widely seen as a possible prime ministerial challenger to Modi. Then, inexplicably in 2017, he accused his partner, the RJD, of corruption, dumped that party, and took up with the BJP. And with that, his name was knocked off the list of those who could lead the battle against Modi and his brand of communally divisive politics.
Four years later, after Mamata Banerjee won a third successive term as Chief Minister of West Bengal in 2021, trouncing the BJP that has emerged as the Trinamool Congress’s closest rival in the state, she became the flavour of the season.
All eyes then were on Banerjee as she spoke of bringing opposition parties together, and she began to be spoken of as the leader the opposition was looking for. For, in the West Bengal polls, with the BJP lacking a face, the elections had been framed as a face-off between Bannerjee and Modi. And she not just won that round but won it with a flourish.
But in the weeks preceding the recent political changes in Bihar, some of Banerjee’s closest political associates have come under the scanner of investigative agencies. This has badly damaged the reputation of her government, and now she is too busy fending off criticism against her government to be able to tackle the BJP frontally as she had been doing.
Not just that, in Maharashtra, which is home to India’s commercial capital, Mumbai, the BJP succeeded recently in toppling a Shiv Sena-Nationalist Congress Party-Congress government, replacing it with one in which it is partnering with a breakaway faction of the Shiv Sena. The political changes in Maharashtra came as a huge blow to the opposition in the country.
It's Not All Smooth Sailing for Nitish
It is against this backdrop that the changes in Bihar have taken place. Little wonder then that the original ‘Sushasan Babu’, or ‘Mr Good Governance’, as Kumar has been described in the past, is being viewed with hope by those who would like to see the back of the Modi government.
Clearly, the road ahead will be difficult: not only will Kumar have to bring the opposition parties onto one platform, but he will also have to deal with the BJP, and not just its hate politics. If investigation agencies are being used in West Bengal, they could well be used in Bihar. Will the new JD(U)-RJD combine be able to withstand the pressure?
The fact that the Congress is part of this alliance also augurs well for the future of this combine. Having said that, the likelihood of Kumar emerging as the principal challenger to Modi will depend also on the Congress, still the country’s largest opposition party, though severely depleted in numbers and strength.
But for the moment, before any declarations are made, it would be enough if Kumar uses his clout as the latest Opposition hero to unite all those who wish to take on the BJP and preside over the creation of a common plan of action and programme.
Stakes are High, But Does the Opposition Understand?
The stakes are high not just for the Opposition but for all those who want India to remain a democracy. To quote Communist Party of India (Marxist–Leninist) Liberation [CPI-ML(L)] general secretary, Dipankar Bhattacharya, who is supporting the Nitish Kumar government from the outside: “The BJP wanted to turn Bihar into a laboratory for experimenting with communal politics, as they have successfully done in Uttar Pradesh. There has to be comprehensive resistance to its aggressive politics, not only from political parties but from civil society as well. We want to play a leading role in that.”
If other opposition parties realise the import of that, they may well have a real chance at challenging the Modi government. And Kumar, by throwing down the gauntlet at a strategically significant moment, has emerged, at least for the time being, on the centre stage of opposition politics.
(Smita Gupta is a senior journalist who’s been Associate Editor, The Hindu, and has also worked with organisations like Outlook India, The Indian Express, Times Of India and Hindustan Times. She’s a former Oxford Reuters Institute fellow. She tweets @g_smita. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)