February 2, 2024
NEW DELHI – India’s opposition alliance has suffered a major jolt in efforts to put up a united front against Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the looming general elections, with the departure of a key regional ally and the arrest of another.
Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, who played a significant role in bringing the opposition parties together, has left the opposition bloc called India (Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance), to join Mr Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Amid criticism of betrayal from his former allies, Mr Kumar, who had nursed prime ministerial ambitions in the alliance, said the opposition alliance had not met his expectations but did not go into details.
An engineer by profession, the 72-year-old politician, known to have a nose for political survival, was sworn in as chief minister on Jan 28 for the ninth time with BJP support.
He is best known for banning alcohol in his state and for giving free bicycles to girls which led to higher enrolment of girls in schools, a scheme replicated in other parts of India and Africa.
Mr Kumar had earlier been in an alliance with Rashtriya Janata Dal and Congress in Bihar state, a politically important state with the fourth-largest number of parliamentary seats, sending 40 MPs to Parliament.
His swearing-in led to memes and jokes that were widely circulated.
“Nitish Kumar. The world’s sole chief minister, who in spite of being the chief minister wanted to become the chief minister. So he resigned as chief minister so he could be sworn in as chief minister again,” said one.
But for Congress and its allies, there was little to joke about amid unending teething troubles some seven months after the alliance’s formation.
“The India alliance lacks a sense of purpose, a cogent political strategy and a prime ministerial face. All these things were missing,” said journalist and author Rasheed Kidwai. “It is not just the exit of one party, it has sent a bad signal within India and outside the alliance.”
The Hindu newspaper noted in an editorial on Jan 27: “The alliance is staring at a crisis in the battle of perception and in building a robust structure for a joint campaign or election strategy.”
In another setback for the alliance, the Enforcement Directorate on Jan 31 arrested Hemant Soren, chief of Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, a regional ally, in a case related to money laundering and land fraud.
The arrest led to a meeting of leaders of the alliance, even as Soren, who resigned as chief minister of Jharkhand state, said he was innocent and filed a case against officials of the financial crime agency for maligning him and his tribal community.
Even as the BJP highlighted the corruption charges, Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra accused the BJP of harassing opposition leaders.
“Whoever does not join the BJP will go to jail,” she said in a post on social media platform X.
These developments come days after another ally, Ms Mamata Banerjee from Trinamool Congress, announced she would go solo in West Bengal state and accused Congress of going slow on negotiations.
Congress leader Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, in turn, called Ms Banerjee an opportunist amid reports that she had offered just two out of 40 parliamentary seats in West Bengal to Congress to field its candidate.
The normal practice in such alliances is to put up one joint candidate for every seat.
Dr Sandeep Shastri, national coordinator of the Lokniti Network, which comprises scholars who conduct election surveys, noted that the problems facing the India alliance were not just Congress’ fault.
“It is a collective failure, but given the fact that the Congress is the nucleus of the coalition, it needs to be more proactive (in taking the alliance forward),” he said.
He added that the entry of Mr Kumar, whose support base is among the socially and economically disadvantaged castes, would help bolster the BJP, which has announced an ambitious target of winning 400-plus seats in the upcoming general election for 542 seats in Parliament. The BJP now has 303 parliamentary seats.
Elections are due before May 2024.
“Nitish Kumar has blamed the Congress for his exit, But there is no reflection on why he is getting into alliance with the BJP. This works eminently for the BJP,” said Dr Shastri.
The BJP has been on a political high in recent weeks. In December, it got a major boost in the Hindi heartland, retaining power in Madhya Pradesh and defeating Congress in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh in state elections.
On Jan 22, Mr Modi presided over a function to open a temple to Hindu god Ram in Ayodhya. The temple, where a Hindu mob demolished a mosque on the site, fulfils a longstanding election promise by the BJP to Lord Ram devotees.
Opinion polls have predicted Mr Modi’s return to power for the third time.
Still, the opposition alliance has vowed to fight on, with its leaders saying Mr Kumar’s exit will not change its plans.
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi entered Bihar state on Jan 29 as part of his second cross-country march called Unite India Justice March. His first march, which ended on Jan 30, 2023, after five months, attracted large crowds and enthused Congress cadres.
His message has been that he is spreading love at a time of growing hatred within the country, for which he blamed the BJP.
On Jan 30, Mr Gandhi told a public rally in Bihar that his alliance would fight for equal rights for people of all communities in Bihar. “We don’t require him (Mr Kumar) at all,” he added.
At the same time, seat-sharing talks have continued with different regional allies, including Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the ruling party in Tamil Nadu. Congress called the talks “positive and pleasant”.
Congress leader Pawan Khera noted at a press briefing on Jan 28: “There are speed-breakers in every yatra (journey).”