Nitish Kumar's Call for Opposition Unity Comes With a Strategy

The Bihar chief minister has developed a three-pronged strategy to counter the BJP in the Hindi heartland.

Patna: The Congress has welcomed Nitish Kumar’s call to set in motion a process of opposition unity, and has said that it will take a decision on the issue at its three-day plenary session in Raipur, Chhattisgarh beginning from February 24. The ruling Mahagathbandhan in Bihar too is going to hold a joint rally in Purnia on February 25.

The Congress’s statement was preceded by the Bihar chief minister and Janata Dal (United) leader appreciating the “grand response” to Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra and appealing to the grand old party to follow up by speeding up the process of unity against the Bharatiya Janata Party.

“I am waiting for the Congress’s signal to work for uniting all the opposition parties. The BJP wouldn’t cross 100 seats in 2024 if the unity takes place,” Nitish said at the CPI-ML- Liberation’s national convention in Patna on February 18, in the presence of senior Congress leader Salman Khurshid. Khurshid reciprocated Nitish’s initiative and said that he would “advocate on Nitish’s behalf in his party”.

It is hard, at this stage, to figure out what strategy Nitish has in mind to bring the BJP down to below 100 seats from its existing strength of 303 in the Lok Sabha. But what is more clear is that he seems to have strategised to cause a “massive defeat” to the Hindutva party in the Hindi heartland. He is learnt to have worked out this strategy with Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) president Lalu Prasad Yadav, who wants to defeat the Sangh parivar as much as the Congress – does if not more.

Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand together have 134 Lok Sabha seats. The BJP and its allies, which included the JD(U) too then, had won 115 of these in the 2019 general elections. The BJP and its allies had won 64, 39 and 12 seats in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand, respectively, virtually decimating regional parties.

A three-pronged strategy

The non-BJP opposition parties together have 240 MPs in the Lok Sabha, against the BJP’s 303. The idea is to win about half or about 70 seats out of the 134 in the three states. If that happens, it will take the opposition’s tally to well over 300 seats and will bring the BJP down to around 240 seats. For this, Nitish working in confidence with Lalu – perhaps the biggest mass leader in the Hindi heartland – has a three-pronged strategy which he wishes to execute in “full understanding” with the Congress and also the Samajwadi Party.

The first and very important component of the strategy is making the Congress ready to accept the primacy of the JD(U) and RJD in Bihar and Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh, and let them be at the forefront of the 2024 battle. In a quid pro quo, these regional parties will accept the primacy of the Congress in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, where the Congress was of course the main opposition against the saffron party.

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Second, Nitish doesn’t want Rahul Gandhi, Nitish himself or anyone else to be projected as the prime ministerial candidate for the 2024 polls. He has repeatedly ruled out his own candidature for the position and is learnt to wish that the Congress – a party with pan-India appeal – too should avoid projecting Rahul for the same at this stage. There is general perception in the top leadership of the JD(U) and RJD that projecting one face at this stage might work to the advantage of the prime minister.

And third, Nitish wants the opposition parties to contest the polls on the pattern of the 1996, 2004 and 2009 Lok Sabha elections, and stick to an issue-based campaign. In all three of these years, opposition parties didn’t project a prime ministerial candidate, while the BJP had put forward A.B. Vajpayee and later L.K. Advani. The grapevine has it that Nitish, Lalu, Bihar’s deputy chief minister Tejaswhi Yadav and SP chief Akhilesh Yadav are of the opinion that they should counter the BJP’s strategy to make the battle like a presidential poll and claim “there was no face against Modi’s”, and instead stick to the real issues like price rise, unemployment, selling off of national assets, corruption and atrocities against minorities and Dalits.

Left to Right: Tejashwi Yadav, Dipankar Bhattacharya, Nitish Kumar and Salman Kurshid. Photo: Twitter/@Dipankar_cpiml.

Patna-based senior journalist Kanhaiya Bhelari said, “The BJP’s only strategy that has proved effective in the past successive elections is to fight the polls on Hindu-Muslim lines, with Narendra Modi as its spearhead. The party will raise the Hindu-Muslim bogey by completing the construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya, targeting Muslims in UP and other states ruled by it, and fuelling the issues like ‘love jihad’ and infiltration from Bangladesh.”

Nitish, who travelled through the entirety of Bihar during his Samadhan Yatra, believes that there is a lot of anger against the Modi-led regime because of the unprecedented rise in the prices of essential commodities, burgeoning unemployment and growing insecurities among the minorities and the weaker sections.

The Bihar model

The Mahagathbandhan in Bihar is effectively a microcosm of what Nitish wishes to build at the national level. The parties in the Mahagathbandhan include the Congress, the CPI(ML)-Liberation, the CPI and the CPI(M), besides the JD(U) and the RJD. It is almost certain that in Bihar, all these parties will contest in an alliance against the BJP in 2024. “The BJP and allies, which included the JD(U), had won 39 seats including the JD(U)’s 16 in 2019. It will be hardly surprising if [next year] the BJP is reduced to four or five seats in the state,” Bhelari said.

Moreover, Nitish and his deputy Tejaswhi are working diligently to diminish the BJP’s strength in the state. “We are sure to give 10 lakh jobs and create 10 lakh more employment opportunities in Bihar,” Nitish asserted again on February 18. RJD spokesman and MP Manoj Jha said, “The Bihar government has already given 1.25 lakh jobs to the youth. The rest are in the process.”

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Besides this, the Nitish government is in the process of conducting a caste survey – which certainly makes the BJP uncomfortable. The survey’s report is likely to come out in May, on the basis of which the Nitish government might increase the quota for the backward classes in state government jobs and might step up the demand for the same at the national level, galvanising and uniting OBCs in favour of the Mahagathbandhan.

Nalin Verma is a senior journalist, media educator and independent researcher in social anthropology.

Edited by Jahnavi Sen.