The journey of the Opposition INDIA alliance began at his official residence seven months ago. As Nitish Kumar walked out of the alliance Sunday to return to the BJP-led NDA, the leaders of the embattled Opposition coalition were clearly at their wits’ end despite sensing the Bihar situation over the last few days. The biggest setback though is for the Congress.
Virtually wiped out of the Hindi heartland in the last round of Assembly elections, the grand old party’s cold comfort in the northern belt was the Mahagathbandhan (grand alliance) in Bihar and the seat sharing pact it is negotiating with the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh. Barring Jharkhand where it is in alliance with the JMM, the Congress is in a straight fight with the BJP in all other Hindi speaking states.
More than the number of seats it would secure in the alliance and win, the Congress was hoping that the INDIA bloc would put a stop to the Narendra Modi juggernaut in these two states, which together account for 120 seats. With Kumar walking away and rejoining the NDA, there is now uncertainty on the INDIA bloc’s electoral fate in Bihar.
In UP, SP chief Akhilesh Yadav has offered the Congress 11 seats out of the total 80. Not a bad deal given the Congress’s strength in the state. The party is asking for more but many believe it should not push beyond a point lest that upsets the SP and break that alliance too. With Kumar walking out, Trinamool Congress (TMC) supremo Mamata Banerjee and the AAP’s Punjab CM Bhagwant Mann declaring their decisions not to tie up with the Congress in West Bengal and Punjab respectively, the latter has little elbow room to indulge in hard bargaining with the SP now.
Bengal CM Mamata is also keeping the Congress on tenterhooks and make it plead to her to enter into a seat-sharing pact in the state despite the bravado shown by state Congress president Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury. It is not showing such desperation in Punjab though, given the state unit’s strong opposition to a tie up with the AAP.
Congress leaders feel the BJP is working overtime to ensure that the party remains where it is now in terms of the Lok Sabha numbers. If the alliance had properly materialised in Bihar and Bengal, the Congress – which is confident of the DMK-led coalition doing well in Tamil Nadu and the party making major gains in Karnataka and Telangana – hoped to add some more seats to it kitty. That hopes may have been virtually dashed now.
There are also apprehensions that more INDIA parties could harden their positions, threatening a complete collapse of the alliance.
Then there is the battle of perception. The Congress Saturday admitted that optics regarding the alliance has taken a hit because of the rumblings. In Bihar, it feels RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav can cash in on a sympathy factor after Kumar’s latest antics – a last desperate hope.
The party is also facing charges of having adopted a callous attitude towards allies. Banerjee’s angry decision to contest alone, Kumar’s exit and Mann’s no tie-up salvo is pushing the Congress into an uneasy corner. The party was quick to slam Kumar. It had little option left.
Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge said RJD chief Lalu Prasad and his son Tejashwi Yadav had given him a hint about Kumar’s plans. “There are many aaya Ram, gaya Rams in the country. He could have stayed had he wanted… ,” Kharge said.
The Congress’s communication head Jairam Ramesh was more scathing. “People like Nitish Kumar who repeatedly change their political partners are giving a tough fight to a chameleon in changing colours…the people of Bihar will not pardon these betrayer specialists and those who dance to their tunes. It is clear that the Prime Minister and the BJP is spooked by the Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra and are enacting such political drama to divert attention,” Ramesh said.
Kumar’s exit would also send another crucial message: given the veteran’s long innings, an indication of which way the electoral wind is blowing. Plus, at a time when the Opposition is seeking to make demand for a caste census its main poll agenda, the loss of a leader who has shown it could be done – Bihar’s recently released caste survey – would punch a big hole in that plank, even as the BJP is left standing taller.
Taking aim at the Congress over Kumar’s switch, RLD leader Shahid Siddiqui said, “Biggest enemy of Congress is the ego and arrogance of its leadership. Forget about Gandhi parivar, its second, third rung leaders behave so arrogantly, and are difficult to contact. BJP on the other hand has no ego and will compromise with their worst enemies for electoral benefits.”