New Delhi: Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar has had an eventful week. After having met the rather reclusive and non-committal Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik on May 9, he and his deputy Tejashwi Yadav flew down to Mumbai to meet former Maharashtra chief minister Uddhav Thackeray.
In his bid to unite opposition forces ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha polls, Nitish Kumar has been persistently at work, especially in meeting leaders who may not like to engage with the Congress directly, given their historical rivalry with the grand old party.
Over the last two months, he has acted more as a “facilitator” to trigger opposition talks, and has consistently been dismissive of any scribe projecting him as the leader of the flock. The senior leader has held, for a long time, that only a one-on-one contest between the Bharatiya Janata Party and the opposition could create political and electoral conditions for bringing the “hegemonic” Narendra Modi government down.
The meeting with Thackeray on May 11, against such a backdrop, became momentous as it also turned out to be the day when the Supreme Court granted the Eknath Shinde-led state government relief, although the five-judge bench also held that the Speaker’s conduct at the time of Shinde faction’s defection was illegal.
Thackeray wasted no time in addressing a press briefing with Nitish Kumar by his side, in what was an endorsement of the latter’s efforts to unite the opposition. “Our duty is to save democracy. My fight is for the people, the state, and the country. Although there are disagreements between different parties, both Kumar and I, along with many other leaders, have now resolved to save our democracy together. Such an effort is important as these people (BJP leaders) are trying to make our country a slave nation once again,” Thackeray said.
Sharad Pawar, the Nationalist Congress Party chief and the anchor of the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government, also echoed the same sentiment, in what came across as a coordinated attempt to speak in a united voice on a day when the apex court’s judgment handed the opposition forces in the state a moral and political edge over the Shinde-led government.
“In the wake of the situation in the country, to save democracy, it is important to work together. After looking at the condition of the country, it seems that if we work together, there will be support for the alternative that the country needs. Yesterday, Karnataka polls were held. As per my information, people [in Karnataka] will oust the BJP and elect a secular government. My sense is that this [apathy towards the BJP] is not restricted to Karnataka, and the whole country wants to be resentful of BJP,” said Pawar, while endorsing Nitish Kumar’s efforts.
In New Delhi, the MVA’s third partner also came down heavily against the Shinde government, and welcomed the apex court’s judgment that pointed out illegalities in the way the Thackeray-led government was dislodged in June 2022.
Senior lawyer and Congress leader Abhishek Manu Singhvi termed the two judgments by the apex court – one, on the Shiv Sena case and the other restoring the elected Aam Aadmi Party government’s power over bureaucrats in the National Capital Territory – “seminal and path-breaking”. He added that “the BJP had lost legally, morally, politically, and ethically”.
“Although the Supreme Court had not restored the status quo ante by not restoring the government of Uddhav Thackeray, it had clearly castigated the actions of the then Maharashtra governor and the Speaker of the assembly,” said Singhvi.
As more and more opposition leaders claimed moral victory over the BJP after the apex court’s decisions, the day turned out to be a boost to the idea of opposition unity. While Nitish Kumar and opposition leaders in Maharashtra came together on one platform, the Congress in the national capital also welcomed the Supreme Court’s decision in favour of AAP.
To a proposition by a journalist that whether Pawar could be the opposition face in 2024, Nitish Kumar readily replied that “there could be nothing more delightful than that.”
“I have told him [Pawar] that he has to work strongly not only for his party but the entire country. The more opposition parties come together, the better it is in the interest of the country,” he said.
Pawar immediately responded saying that the need of the hour is to “work together to save democracy” and that “face will be decided later”.
Opposition leaders, including the likes of Mamata Banerjee, Akhilesh Yadav, and Naveen Patnaik, have responded positively to Nitish Kumar’s endeavours. The Congress has failed to do so over the last eight years, but ever since Mallikarjun Kharge was elected as the party president, he has been actively promoting the idea of unity and even went on to empower Nitish Kumar as the main negotiator.
However, the opposition leaders have signalled that they are willing to bury the leadership issue for the time being and focus on putting the ideological issues around which they wish to come together in limelight.