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Nitish Kumar endorses Narendra Modi as invincible in 2019, but a united Opposition can still put up a fight

When the potential leader of Mahagathbandhan becomes an acolyte of the NDA overnight, you can easily understand the personal logic behind his argument that there is no alternative to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Nitish Kumar's prediction of Modi's invincibility in the 2019 elections, seen in the light of his own volte-face, thus, sounds plausible. Just a few months ago, Kumar was dreaming of a Sangh-mukt Bharat. After his victory in the 2015 Bihar polls, his supporters were talking of Delhi being the next target. If Kumar has given up midway, turned into, as Tejashwi Yadav said, Rannchhod (someone who runs away from battle), he must have surely seen the writing on the 2019 wall saying, Modi.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar. PTI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar. PTI

Kumar must get some of the credit for vesting Modi with an aura of invincibility. Writing for The Indian Express, Manoj Kumar Jha, national spokesperson of the Rashtriya Janata Dal, fumes you cannot "cement a greater association with a snake in your bosom." Jha is piqued that at crucial turns in Indian politics, like demonetisation and selection of a united opposition candidate for the presidential election, Kumar openly supported the BJP, deflating the morale of the anti-Modi camp.

This, prima facie, is a valid argument. There were indeed times in India's recent history when the opposition could have opened a united front against the NDA government. Demonetisation, arguably more of a failure than success, was one such issue where the opposition could have cornered the government. But, the opposition lost its voice and credibility because one of its pivots — Kumar, the only leader to have stopped Modi's juggernaut — gave the move his blanket support. That day, the biggest battle against Modi was lost.

With the benefit of hindsight, it can be argued that Kumar was already a part of team Modi by then. From behind the mask of the leader of Bihar's Mahagathbandhan, he was perhaps echoing the voice of the BJP. But, his pro-demonetisation stance then appeared to be a vote of confidence in Modi's gamble from the opposition, thus giving it moral, political and economic legitimacy.

So, when Kumar calls Modi unassailable, the BJP bastion impregnable, he should pat his own politics of convenience for it. Maybe, some day he would be rightly recognised as the Vibhishan or, depending on your loyalties, Jaichand, in the opposition camp.

Now that he is out of the opposition's bosom, can the anti-Modi camp come up with an alternate narrative? Can it still dream of taking on Modi in 2019? Kumar may argue — and the current state of politics justifies it — the battle for 2019 is already Modi's. But, two years is a lot of time in politics.

To win the next election, Modi needs to ensure his party repeats the 2014 performance in Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Haryana, Bihar and Delhi — states that it almost swept, wiping the opposition out. It also needs to extend its gains in the North East, just to ensure there is enough cushion for a hard landing in other states. Is this viable?

Rajasthan (25 seats), Gujarat (26), Madhya Pradesh (29) and Chattisgarh (11) have assembly polls scheduled in 2017-18. In all these states, the BJP is in power with a brute majority. Even if there is a marginal shift of votes due to anti-incumbency, the BJP would struggle to repeat its 2019 performance, when it allowed the Congress to win just three out of the 91 seats at stake. In a few months from now, we would know which way the wind is blowing in these states.

Uttar Pradesh could be the biggest challenge for the BJP, especially if Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav decide to bury their egos and fight as a unity against the BJP. In the face of a combined Congress-SP-BSP coalition, the BJP may find it difficult to win the 73 seats it did in 2014. And, in Maharashtra, a quadrangular fight between BJP, Shiv Sena and the Congress-NCP alliance could help the opposition wrest back some seats from the NDA.

Kumar is right that Modi looks unbeatable in 2019. But, if the opposition takes Kumar's betrayal as a catalyst for greater unity, it may just about be able to stop Modi and make its former putative leader eat crow.

Updated Date: Aug 02, 2017 06:34 AM

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