One should admire the genius of Nitish Kumar in how smoothly he switches sides and aligns with his bitter enemies. Nitish Kumar was Lalu Yadav's best friend at one time and he owes a lot to him for his rise in politics. Yet in 1994, he had no qualms in leaving him and forming his own political party and in 1996, he aligned with the BJP, a party he used to call communal. He went on to become a cabinet minister in Atal Bihari Vajpayee's cabinet and later, the Chief Minister of Bihar. Nitish Kumar who did not resign when the Gujarat riots took place, but 11 years later, he realised that Modi was dangerous for the country and broke his alliance with the BJP when Modi was made the Prime Ministerial candidate. In 2017, he went back to the same Modi who had questioned his DNA during the 2015 assembly election.
Now he is back with Lalu Yadav. What is remarkable is that it was always Nitish Kumar who ditches his partners and never the other way round. And such has been his charm or magnetism that every time he has sought status quo ante, he has been welcomed by the parties he ditched. So now, what is the guarantee that he will remain with the secular formation and will not go back to the BJP again? The answer to this question will determine his status in national politics. If his charm as a great political seducer continues, he will be the best bet for the anti-Modi formation in 2024. And if he is seen with suspicion within the Opposition camp, his politics will only be confined to Bihar.
There is no denying the fact that Nitish Kumar has stature, experience, acumen, guile and seniority, and is someone who can cobble together Opposition parties under one umbrella like Harkishan Singh Surjeet did in 1996 and later in 2004 to build enough support for the Manmohan Singh government to keep the BJP away from the Centre.
The Opposition today is a divided house. There is no obvious leader and there is no consensus on one programme to create an organism which can challenge the might of Hindutva politics. Mamata Banerjee showed flashes of brilliance while trouncing the BJP in West Bengal assembly election in May. She has the requisite talent and background to contend for the consensus candidate within the Opposition but her temperament and unpredictability are her biggest enemy. Her conduct during the Goa election and the way she rubbished the Congress shows her fickleness and immaturity for national politics. Similarly, she did not show any maturity during the recent Presidential and Vice-Presidential elections. She has allowed herself to be seen as mercurial and egocentric, lacking a national outlook or any long-term strategy to fulfil her national ambition. She is a senior figure within the Opposition but it's doubtful that she will be its chosen one, so to speak.
Sharad Pawar has the stature and experience but for some unknown reason, he is not prepared to play a Surjeet-type role. In the last few years, except for uniting the Opposition in Maharashtra to form the government under Uddhav Thackeray's leadership, he has shown no inclination for national politics. KCR is another politician who could have played a pivotal role like NTR did in late 1980s. He did try to meet Opposition leaders in the recent past but his antipathy towards the Congress is a great hindrance for Opposition unity. It is apparent that he has the ambition to occupy the top-most job in the country. Despite being from Telangana, he speaks good Hindi. But he needs to be more flexible if he wants to play a bigger role in national politics.
Given this void, Nitish Kumar can be an asset for the Opposition. He is flexible, does not make controversial remarks against other parties, can pick up the phone and speak to anyone, be it Sonia Gandhi, Sharad Pawar, Mamata Banerjee, KCR, Arvind Kejriwal or Sitaram Yechury. It is for this reason that he is bad news for BJP and Modi. Absence of Opposition unity has been the biggest boon for the PM but if Nitish Kumar succeeds in uniting the Opposition, which he is capable of, then 2024 will not be easy for the PM.
With Nitish's exit, the BJP could gain in the long run in Bihar; no longer in his shadow, it can work on emerging in a few years as the biggest party to form the government on its own. Bihar is the only Hindi-speaking state where the BJP has never managed to cross the majority number. It has always played a supporting role. Even in 2020, when it had more MLAs in the assembly elections than Nitish Kumar, it decided not to lead the government. How much BJP lacked in confidence was apparent from the fact that in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, it surrendered five seats that it had won to the JDU. In 2014, it had 29.5% votes and in 2019, it got only 23.5% votes - this stands out given that it garnered more than 50% votes in all other Hindi-speaking states in 2019.
But a gain in Bihar can be disadvantageous in national politics. Without Nitish Kumar, the BJP's Lok Sabha seats could reduce. If the JDU and the RJD decide to contest the general election along with the Congress and the Left in 2024, then in Bihar, despite the Modi magic, the BJP could take a hit and that would impact its standing in parliament.
For now, Nitish Kumar has proved that the BJP can be outsmarted. He will feed off this for a while.
(Ashutosh is author of 'Hindu Rashtra' and Editor, satyahindi.com.)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.