Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar had a 70-minute long meeting with Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge and party leader Rahul Gandhi at Kharge’s Rajaji Marg residence Monday (22 May).
The meeting, where the trio discussed ‘opposition unity’ to forge a broad anti-BJP front, was described as “fruitful” by both the Congress and the Janata Dal (United).
But the meeting was far from it. It also drove home the point to both the top Congress leadership and Nitish Kumar that a pre-poll understanding leading to fielding consensus candidates in a sizable number of seats will be quite impossible.
The only agenda that the Congress and JD(U) leadership could ostensibly decide on was that a meeting of all Opposition leaders would be held in Patna soon. The date and venue of the meeting will be decided after consultations with all opposition leaders subject to their availability.
Nitish Kumar, who was accompanied by his party president Lalan Singh, raised the primary issue of hammering a consensus on fielding ‘joint candidates’ in as many seats as possible.
Kumar, according to two JD(U) leaders very close to him, reportedly said that the only way to mount a tough challenge to the BJP in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections was to field ‘joint candidates’ in a maximum number of the 543 Lok Sabha seats.
“We have to put up a one-to-one fight against the BJP in as many seats as possible. We cannot allow the anti-BJP vote to get divided. That is the only way to defeat the BJP next year,” Kumar is said to have told Kharge and Gandhi.
The two Congress leaders said that while they fully agreed with Kumar in principle, there was no way that the Congress would limit itself to contesting from anything less than 400 to 410 seats next year.
The Congress, said Kharge and Gandhi, was the principal Opposition party in most states and was in power in four states (Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Karnataka), besides being part of the ruling coalition in two states (Bihar and Jharkhand).
Kharge reportedly told Nitish Kumar very emphatically that the Congress will play a central role in any anti-BJP opposition bloc. The Congress is the only opposition party with a pan-India presence and regional parties will have to accept that reality, said Kharge.
Kharge also told Kumar that the Congress will support candidates put up by regional parties in constituencies where the latter is strong. But the Congress won’t accept unreasonable demands to concede ground to smaller parties in seats where the Congress stands a good chance of winning.
And the smaller regional parties have to support Congress candidates wholeheartedly even in states where they (the regional parties) are in power.
Rahul Gandhi is said to have intervened at this stage and told Kumar that he (Kumar) would have to play a big role in getting regional parties on board.
“Nitish Kumar agreed that the Congress is the pivot of Opposition unity and will play a leadership role in an anti-BJP front. He assured the Congress leadership that he would speak to other regional parties and get them to agree on this,” a senior JD(U) leader who spoke to Kumar after the meeting told Swarajya.
Kharge is said to have outrightly dismissed Trinamool Congress chairperson Mamata Banerjee’s formula that the Congress should contest in only 200-odd seats and leave the rest of the (343) seats to the regional parties.
Nitish Kumar reportedly told his party colleague rather dejectedly that Rahul Gandhi also laughed away Mamata Banerjee’s demand and remarked that she had no idea of ground realities.
Kharge pointedly told Nitish Kumar that even in Bengal, the Congress will field candidates in seats where it has a strong presence despite Trinamool’s attempts to engineer defections (from Congress to Trinamool).
“Some of our party functionaries may have gone to the Trinamool, but the electorate is with us in many places and we cannot let them down,” Kharge told Kumar.
Kumar replied that state-level issues and rivalries must not impede a national-level understanding on seat-sharing. Kharge agreed and said that the Congress will make a distinction between state-level compulsions and national-level understanding.
But it should not be the sole responsibility of the Congress to adopt a ‘spirit of compromise and adjustment’ and other parties should also imbibe the same spirit.
Nitish Kumar told his senior party colleague Tuesday (23 May) that forging Opposition unity would be a Herculean task.
“What the Congress leadership told me is that the Congress will play a major role and field candidates in a maximum number of seats. But some other regional parties like the Samajwadi Party, the Trinamool Congress and the Bharat Rashtra Samithi (BRS) of Telangana chief minister K. Chandrashekar Rao, will not agree to that,” Nitish Kumar confided to his party colleague.
Nitish Kumar also brought up the issue of the Union Government promulgating an ordinance to negate a Supreme Court judgement giving the Delhi government control over its bureaucrats. Kumar sought the help of the Congress to defeat the move of the Union Government.
The ordinance will have to be introduced in the form of a bill in the next session of Parliament. While the NDA has the numbers to ensure its passage in the Lok Sabha, it does not have a majority in the Rajya Sabha.
Nitish Kumar had met Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal at the latter’s residence Sunday (May 21). Kejriwal requested Nitish to get all opposition parties on the same page to oppose the bill.
But the Congress leadership did not give any assurance to Kumar on this. Kharge told Nitish Kumar that his party will consult its Delhi state unit and others before formulating its stand on the issue.
But indications are that the Congress will not support Kejriwal. The Congress is a contender for power in Delhi and reaching a seat-sharing agreement with the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in the seven seats in Delhi will be a near impossibility, ‘
Congress general secretary K C Venugopal tweeted after the meeting: “The Congress Party has not taken any decision on the issue of the Ordinance brought against the SC judgement on the powers of the Government of NCT of Delhi with respect to appointment of officers. It will consult its state units & other like-minded parties on the same. The Party believes in the Rule of Law and at the same time does not condone unnecessary confrontation, political witch-hunt and campaigns based on lies against political opponents by any political party”.
This is being interpreted by political observers as a criticism of the AAP as well as the Union Government. The reference to ‘unnecessary confrontation’ and ‘campaigns based on lies’ is aimed at the AAP with which the Congress has a running battle in Punjab.
In Punjab, too, the Congress is unlikely to agree to fielding candidates from anything less than eight to ten of the 13 Lok Sabha seats in the state.
“Nitish Kumar is quite dejected. It will be extremely difficult to forge an understanding on fielding joint candidates in Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Delhi, Punjab and Telangana,” the JD(U) leader told Swarajya. These five states have, between them, 159 Lok Sabha seats.
On top of this, the Congress will insist on fielding candidates in all or almost all the seats in Karnataka (28 seats), Chhattisgarh (11 seats), Rajasthan (25 seats) and Himachal Pradesh (4 seats) where it is in power. And also in all the 23 seats in the Northeast where it says it is the principal opposition party.
The YSRCP in Andhra Pradesh (25 seats) and the BJD in Odisha (21 seats) are unlikely to be part of the anti-BJP front.
Also, Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee is not too happy with Nitish Kumar overshadowing her in an anti-BJP formation of regional parties.
Though she has often said publicly that she does not want any leadership role in such a formation and is happy to let others take the lead, she nurses ambitions of playing a key role in the national political stage.
Nitish Kumar came out of the meeting with Kharge and Gandhi in quite a despondent mood. The reality of his dream of forging opposition unity being an impractical one hit him very hard during the meeting.
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