Desperately seeking a leader. This aptly sums up the current state of the disparate and divided opposition, which is unable to put up a collective fight against a resurgent Bharatiya Janata Party, for lack of credible leadership.The recent results of the Haryana and Maharashtra assembly polls ought to spur the opposition into action, as this verdict has shown that voters are looking for an alternative but it has to be a leader with whom they can connect. There could be innumerable reasons for his or her acceptability: the right caste, the promise of good governance, clean image, powerful personality and so on.
Nationalist Congress Party leader Sharad Pawar appealed to the electorate in Maharashtra because he is reputed to be a good administrator, and also because the veteran leader was seen to have been wronged by the Modi government. This clearly did not go down well with the dominant Maratha community to which he belongs. In Haryana, the combination of former chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda and state unit president Kumari Selja helped the Congress double its tally, as they could together tap into the simmering anger among the Jats and Dalits, who felt they had been discriminated against by the BJP government.
The big challenge before the opposition now is to replicate this model in other states and, more importantly, at the national level. As the principal opposition party enjoying a larger footprint in comparison to the other non-BJP parties, the Congress has the first right to the leadership of this grouping. However, Nehru-Gandhi scion Rahul Gandhi, who led the Congress to a series of electoral defeats, has not measured up to the job. And yet, the opposition grouping cannot shun the Congress, as it needs a national party as its anchor.
If the Congress is, indeed, serious about taking on the Modi-led BJP juggernaut, it should recognize the ground reality and gracefully withdraw from the race.
At the same time, it should publicly declare its support to another leader, who is not necessarily drawn from the party ranks.
So the question is: who is best suited to take on Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Several contenders are mentioned in this context. While Sharad Pawar and Trinamool Congress chief and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee are names which spring to mind immediately, ironically Bihar Chief Minister and Janata Dal (U) president Nitish Kumar is also viewed favourably for this job, though he is presently supping with the enemy.
Pawar is the flavour of the season, post-Maharashtra polls. A determined Pawar led a feisty campaign in the assembly election, though the BJP made every attempt to weaken him by spiriting away a large number of NCP leaders on election-eve and also sought to tarnish his image with a notice from the Enforcement Directorate. The Maratha strongman, who has long nursed prime ministerial ambitions, certainly has the credentials to emerge as the face of a combined opposition. He was a successful chief minister and a central minister, and has friends cutting across party lines. However, age and health are against him.
Mamata Banerjee also ticks all the necessary boxes: she is a mass leader who uprooted a three-decade-old Left Front government in West Bengal and has served as chief minister for two terms and has had several stints as a minister at the Centre. But her mercurial nature is cited as a negative.
With other Gen Next dynasts like Akhilesh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party and Rashtriya Janata Dal’s Tejaswi Yadav also falling by the wayside, opposition parties grudgingly admit that Nitish Kumar is still their best bet. This is despite the fact that he ditched the mahagathbandhan in Bihar, and walked straight into the waiting arms of the BJP.
Nitish Kumar’s image of an able administrator was recently dented following his government’s poor handling of floods in Bihar. Politically, too, Nitish Kumar is on a weak wicket. He has to deal with a far more aggressive and assertive state unit of the BJP, which is convinced it now has the upper hand in this relationship.
Though both the Janata Dal (U) and BJP suffered a setback in the recent bypolls when they lost four of the five seats they contested, the tensions between them are likely to escalate as next year’s assembly polls draw closer.
The Janata Dal (U) and BJP are not expected to part ways, but Nitish Kumar is still perceived to be the “right choice” to lead the fractious opposition, for lack of other choices.
Even his detractors maintain that he has the knack of emerging unscathed from the brickbats hurled at him.
The Bihar chief minister is perceived to be a sober and mature politician who has learned the virtues of staying below the radar.
“Like Modi, he has also acquired a Teflon image. You can bet, his handling of the floods will be forgotten long before next year’s assembly polls,” remarked an opposition leader.