Nitish-for-PM chorus: too many ifs and buts

When the Uttar Pradesh Assembly poll results started trickling in, the ruling Janata Dal (United) leaders in Bihar could not hide their glee. The more the trend showed the BJP-led alliance inching towards a four-fifth majority in India’s most populous state, the more the JD (U) members appeared elated.

The reasons were one too many: first, the result had unexpectedly clipped the wings of outgoing chief minister Akhilesh Yadav, also president of the Samajwadi Party. Second, the poll results proved for the umpteenth time that Congress leader Rahul Gandhi was losing one election after another ever since he was anointed the vice president of the grand old party. Third, the myth around BSP supremo Mayawati, too, had exploded.

But what has Nitish Kumar to do with the defeat of these self-proclaimed secular leaders? All these three leaders, had they performed well, would have punctured the probability of Nitish emerging as the consensus candidate from the Opposition camp who could take a mighty Narendra Modi head-on in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

Nitish, who was the brain behind floating the idea of re-uniting all the Janata Parivar members in 2015, was found isolated in 2017 when neither his pocket organisation the JD(U) was asked to enter into a poll-pact with the SP-Congress combine nor was he asked to campaign for the new alliance forged in UP.

Left alone to lick his wounds with a bruised ego, the UP Assembly result could not have been better for Nitish who always considered Akhilesh and his father Mulayam as rivals when it came to a contender from the Opposition camp hailing from the Hindi-belt for the top executive post. Akhilesh and Rahul, had invited RJD leader and Nitish’s alliance partner Lalu Prasad to campaign in UP polls but had given a cold-shoulder treatment to Nitish, who tore Narendra Modi to shreds in 2015.

Modi, on the eve of Bihar polls, had announced Rs 1.25 lakh crore package for the cash-strapped Bihar but it needed someone of Nitish’s calibre to call Modi’s bluff and expose, through full-page advertisements in local newspapers, how hollow the prime minister’s promises were.

While reams of newsprint have gone into dwelling at length on Nitish-Modi rivalry, their animosity subsided after Nitish handed a crushing and decisive defeat to his bete noire in Bihar’s 2015 Assembly polls. Since then, Nitish has emerged as a strong contender who could give Modi a tough fight in terms of style and substance.

“Nitish ji is a good orator and an equally able administrator. The best part is that unlike Modi, he never promises any such thing which can’t be fulfilled at the ground level. This he has proved through enforcing law and order in Bihar, imposing prohibition and later implementing his seven resolves (which includes ensuring drinking water, loan to students etc),” said JD (U) national secretary general K C Tyagi. “Time has come to stitch a Bihar-like alliance, which can be led by Nitish, the most able, capable and acceptable leader from the Opposition camp,” he argued.

The JD (U) feels that since NCP chief Sharad Pawar and former prime minister Deve Gowda have thrown their weight behind Nitish, it will be relatively easier for the Bihar CM to emerge as a consensus candidate, particularly in the wake of SP and Congress’ debacle, and as leader of a united opposition to take on the BJP.

Bumpy road
For all practical purposes, Lalu Prasad too has favoured the projection of Nitish as the Opposition candidate for the top post. But this has nothing to do with Nitish’s competence. The RJD chief wants Nitish’s elevation so that his youngest son and Deputy Chief Minister Tejaswi Yadav could don the mantle of Bihar in such an eventuality.

But amid all wishful thinking, the road ahead for Nitish appears to be a bumpy one. First and foremost, there are strong doubts whether another firebrand regional satrap Mamata Banerjee, who, post-demonetisation, termed Nitish as a ‘traitor’ (following his support to Modi on the issue), will accept his candidature.

Secondly, will Akhilesh or Mulayam give their nod for such an arrangement? Incidentally, both UP and West Bengal have more number of Lok Sabha seats compared to Bihar. And the SP and the TMC have more MPs than Nitish’s meagre two LS members from Bihar.

Thirdly, will the Congress, with a pan-India presence, ever accept anyone else other than Rahul in its fight against the Modi-led BJP? “It’s true that senior Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar had suggested recently that Congress should form a 2004-type alliance but forgo its claim on leadership and allow some more credible face from the Opposition to lead it. But I feel, by doing so, the Congress will be signing its death warrant,” a senior Congress leader from New Delhi told Deccan Herald over phone. “If you give away the leadership, what will be left?” he argued and added that it was “too early to comment on Nitish’s projection as a possible candidate.”

The Congress is apparently not too happy with Nitish’s love-hate relationship with either the Congress or the BJP. “First, Nitish used Rahul to project himself as the chief ministerial candidate in 2015 Bihar polls when Lalu and Mulayam were averse to it. And when the time came to repay the debt, he deserted Rahul on the demonetisation issue and sided with Modi when the entire Opposition, including arch-rivals like Mamata and Left, had closed ranks on the issue,” averred another Congress leader wishing not be identified.

His charges are not totally unfounded as vernacular dailies are full of stories on how Nitish is gradually inching closer towards Modi. At the same time, he is hoping against hope that a weakened Rahul, Akhilesh, Mayawati and Arvind Kejriwal, could brighten his chances as a front-runner for the top post. In the process, however, he is fuelling greater suspicion in both camps and, thereby, inadvertently making more enemies than friends. And this could prove to be his nemesis.     

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