A certain cohesion is now emerging in India’s so-far listless opposition. If this cohesion holds over the next 11 months and, somehow, helps to unseat the formidable Bharatiya Janata Party in the 2024 general election, historians will look back with much interest at a crucial meeting held in Patna last week.
Although not every notable political party was present, the meeting drew 32 leaders from 15 parties to explore the potential for a nationwide alliance to take on the BJP. It was the largest opposition gathering in the nine years that Narendra Modi, a two-term prime minister, has been in power. Crucially, attendees included leaders of the Indian National Congress – the grand old party of India and currently the largest opposition force – despite tensions with some of its smaller rivals who were also invited.
The Patna conclave was a decisive first step towards a long-elusive “opposition unity” – to begin with, there were no quarrels over who would lead this potential alliance. That in and of itself is a win for Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, who hosted the meeting. For months, he had, along with a number of other opposition leaders from across the country, been attempting to bring together what appears to be a coalition of contradictions.
But then Mr Kumar is himself a man of contradictions, having shown ideological fungibility in his pursuit of power over more than four decades in politics. A socialist by upbringing, he rose to prominence in the 1970s, fiercely opposing the national emergency imposed by the then dominant Congress party. Two decades later, his centre-left Janata Dal (United) party formed a governing coalition with the distinctly right-wing Hindu nationalist BJP in New Delhi. Mr Kumar served as a minister in this government without compunction.
In his nearly 20-year stint as Bihar chief minister, Mr Kumar has seen his party’s support base dwindle for various reasons. Yet he has managed to retain the chief ministership (barring a brief interregnum in 2014) by shifting loyalties twice between the BJP and its arch-rivals, including Congress.
One would assume that political expediency has a shelf life and parties would be averse to sharing power with Mr Kumar knowing he could shift allegiance once again. But he has shown remarkable staying power, while his grassroots connect has remained sturdy, even if limited.
Mr Kumar draws legitimacy – and therefore power – from his small but important and loyal voter base comprised of the Kurmi peasant community. His widespread acceptability among Bihar’s political class and its masses has also fuelled his longevity. It is this acceptability that he is surely hoping will make him the top contender for the leadership of an anti-BJP opposition in 2024.
He isn’t the most popular option for prime minister. Mr Modi is streets ahead in an authoritative NDTV-CSDS survey, with Congress leader Rahul Gandhi coming second. What’s even more damning for Mr Kumar is that two other leaders in his emerging alliance are marginally ahead of him.
But time is on his side. Over a long election campaign, he might be able to marshal his oratory to connect with millions of voters, particularly in northern India’s sprawling Hindi heartland, which forms the BJP’s base. Moreover, in order to avoid making 2024 a presidential-style contest against the hugely popular Mr Modi – a losing proposition for the opposition – the alliance is likely to pick its leader only after the election. This will suit Mr Kumar. He can leverage his broad acceptability to jockey for the top post, especially with Mr Gandhi’s prospects as a member of parliament hanging in the balance in the wake of his recent conviction in a defamation case.
However, the contradictions that exist in Mr Kumar’s alliance could ruin his prospects.
Shiv Sena, a right-wing Hindu nationalist party like the BJP, its erstwhile partner, is clearly a misfit among the coalition’s largely centre-left and far-left constituents. Disagreements persist over handling the Adani group, one of India’s largest conglomerates that US-based short-seller Hindenburg Research has accused of fraud. Congress opposes the group, while the Nationalist Congress Party supports it.
Some parties are also vying for the same voters. Congress, for instance, is the only genuinely pan-India party other than the BJP. But it is a declining force in regions where its prospective partners are strong, such as the communists in Kerala. Will it play second fiddle when seat-sharing discussions come up?
There was an eleventh-hour twist to the Patna meeting, when the Aam Aadmi Party left after Congress refused to support it over a fiat issued by the union government to effectively clip the wings of the AAP-run Delhi state government. While the issue raises concerns about federalism, Congress opposes the AAP in Delhi, its bastion until a decade ago.
A rising force in Indian politics, the AAP has been eating into Congress’s vote share in other parts of the country, too, in its bid to eventually supplant it. Following their quarrel last week, it is unlikely to return, already undermining the alliance.
Moreover, even if Mr Kumar’s brainchild pushes ahead despite these contradictions, it will ultimately face a BJP that has several advantages: Mr Modi’s charisma, the party’s Hindutva ideology, hypernationalism and populist welfare measures for the poor.
But the BJP will be worried about anti-incumbency, as was evidenced in the recent Karnataka state election. India’s economy has yet to fully recover from the Covid-19 pandemic. Unemployment, inflation, rural distress and a potentially weak monsoon this year remain concerns, so much so that opposition parties are converging on an idea to expand the welfare state, including affirmative action programmes.
Amid all this, Mr Modi will be warily following the emerging alliance of his rivals. Even if the latter’s campaign doesn’t bring the BJP’s tally below the halfway mark of 272 seats, a major fall from its 2019 election tally of 303 seats itself could undermine the prime minister’s aura of invincibility.
And if the BJP does fall below 272, Mr Kumar’s post-poll alliance will not only move centre stage, but it might also draw parties that skipped the Patna conclave last week. The Bihar chief minister could then be a legitimate contender for the prime ministership.
It is a tall order, with too many moving parts, but the BJP is unlikely to take Mr Kumar for granted.