Rahul’s handling of the Bihar mahagatbandhan shows why opposition unity is so difficult.
At its lowest ebb in history, the Congress party’s greatest anxiety is not that Narendra modi could return to power in 2019. The greatest worry is that another party, another leader could replace the Congress as the primary pole against the Bharatiya Janata Party in national politics.
No matter how much Rahul Gandhi flounders, the Congress can hope to return to power whenever the BJP fails. All it needs to do is to make sure someone else doesn’t take away the opposition spot from the Congress.
This anxiety reflects itself in the Congress’ pre-poll negotiations with parties like Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).
A good example of this is how the Congress handled the Bihar mahagatbandhan, letting its anxiety over Nitish Kumar’s national ambitions decide its strategy.
The mahagatbandhan victory in November 2015 showed it was possible to stop the Modi juggernaut in its tracks. All it required was a high index of opposition unity. Nitish-led Janata Dal (United), Lalu Yadav-led Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Congress all came together to win Bihar, a state the BJP had swept just a year ago in the general elections.
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In July 2017, Nitish quit this alliance and joined hands with the BJP, leading to disappointment among opposition forces who had hoped to defeat the BJP in the 2019 general elections.
Having stitched together a difficult mahagatbandhan and defeating the BJP with it, Nitish wanted to play an important role in national politics. The Congress party’s inability to revive itself after 2014 had created a political vacuum. Like Kejriwal, Nitish openly pitched his ambition until giving up on it altogether and joining the BJP-led NDA last year.
The Congress was understandably wary of Nitish’s prime ministerial ambitions. In May 2016, Bihar Pradesh Congress Committee chief Ashok Choudhary accompanied chief minister Nitish Kumar to Varanasi. The trip was seen to be part of Nitish’s effort to project himself as the national opposition to Modi. Choudhary was summoned to Delhi by the Congress high command and rebuked for accompanying Nitish to Varanasi, sources close to him say. This brought Choudhary closer to Nitish and he was unceremoniously sacked. He later joined the JD(U).
After the Modi government’s “surgical strikes” and the initial popularity of demonetisation, Nitish sensed that the promise of the Bihar mahagatbandhan had made Modi invincible in the near future.
Nitish made his point of view clear from the stage during the launch of P. Chidambaram’s book Fearless in Opposition: Power and Accountability in February 2017. “Everyone is sitting here. I’d like to make just one request publicly. Let’s please try for maximum opposition unity… We have to work on our own agenda. Only 10 per cent space should be for reacting to their agenda. A united opposition should decide its agenda and take that agenda forward. Why should they always set the agenda? Why shouldn’t Rahul Gandhi set the agenda?”
Rahul Gandhi was sitting in the audience. The meaning seemed to be clear: Nitish was appealing to Rahul to get his act together. Either you do it, or let me do it.
Nitish’s conditional support to demonetisation was his way of sending signals to the Congress. After the BJP swept Uttar Pradesh, Nitish felt there was little left in the opposition’s game.
As Nitish’s JD(U) started making noises about its alliance with the RJD over corruption charges faced by then-deputy chief minister Tejashwi Yadav, the Congress did nothing to douse the fire. Nitish flew to Delhi in July last year and met Rahul, asking him to intervene. Insiders say that Nitish did not want to directly ask Tejashwi for his resignation, but felt that if he and the Congress both asked for it, the RJD would have to quietly accept it.
Rahul refused. According to a person present at the meeting, Rahul explained he wasn’t asking Virbhadra Singh in Himachal Pradesh to resign despite a similar case by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) because corruption charges made by a Modi-run CBI are to be seen as politically motivated. If I am not asking Virbhadra to resign, Rahul argued, how could I ask Tejashwi?
The Tejashwi issue was a test case. Rahul made it clear he’d side with Lalu over Nitish. For Nitish, this meant the Congress was not with him. On their part, the Congress was unhappy with Nitish’s support to demonetisation and his absence from Sonia Gandhi’s dinner meeting.
The Congress could see Nitish drift towards the BJP. It’s not as if Nitish didn’t give the Congress enough opportunities to stop that from happening, be it that warning at the book launch or meeting Rahul before he switched over. Both Sonia and Rahul showed little interest in engaging Nitish or keeping him in the mahagatbandhan. Rahul publicly admitted he knew Nitish was going to go with the BJP.
Nitish was just a tourist from the NDA who returned home, said Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad, sounding relieved. The other side of that coin is that the Congress treated Nitish like a tourist, not letting him feel at home in the anti-Modi camp.
Congress wants Nitish to stay with Modi
After Nitish switched over to the BJP, Hindutva forces started asserting themselves in Bihar. In March this year, communal riots broke out in eight of Bihar’s 38 districts. Nitish has been the chief minister of the state since 2005, but this was the first time his regime witnessed communal violence on this scale.
That was an opportunity for Rahul to step in and say Nitish is welcome back to the opposition fold for secularism. But Rahul doesn’t want ‘opposition unity’ at the cost of letting other leaders overshadow him.
Nitish and his party have been expressing unhappiness with the BJP. Talks over seat-sharing in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections have been inconclusive. Political circles have been abuzz with Nitish’s desire to make a switch once again. Rahul should be lapping up this opportunity to hurt the BJP’s prospects in Bihar. But Rahul would rather have the NDA sweep Bihar than let the national opposition space be occupied by politicians smarter than him. If Nitish is neutralised in Bihar today, it is only to the Congress party’s long-term advantage.
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