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Can Chief Ministers With Old Ties Cement Alliance For 2024 Poll?

Nalin Verma |
Decoding Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s meeting with Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik.
Image Courtesy: PTI

Image Courtesy: PTI

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and his Odisha counterpart Naveen Patnaik had about a two-hour luncheon meeting at Bhubaneswar but refused to admit before the media that they discussed the Opposition alliance issue. “Don’t worry about our politics. We share old and enduring personal relations which are above politics,” Nitish said.

Unlike Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, Samajwadi Party president Akhilesh Yadav, and left party leaders, who have conclusively said they would join an “anti-Bharatiya Janata Party” alliance, Patnaik was not categorical about the Congress or other parties efforts to collectively challenge the Narendra Modi-led dispensation in the 2024 general election. All he said was that he and Nitish did not discuss the Opposition alliance issue.

It has spurred cynics, particularly BJP leaders, to dub the Nitish-Patnaik meeting a “failed” effort. A BJP leader and Union minister Giriraj Singh mocked the effort, “The statements and emotionless pictures shared by the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) leaders suggest that the Janata Dal (United) leader [Nitish] had gone on vacation”.

The BJP’s mirth is misplaced for two reasons. First, if the two longest-serving chief ministers of their respective states had a discussion for two hours, they would not have gossiped about inconsequential issues. It is reasonable to deduce that they simply did not prefer to share with the media what transpired between them at this stage.

Secondly, it is still early stages of forging an opposition unity. Sending the right messages and building an atmosphere around such an alliance is also part of the opposition strategy. Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge and party leader Rahul Gandhi described their meeting with Nitish on 12 April as “historic”. After that, Nitish regularly met opposition leaders to build an atmosphere against the BJP in the 2024 Lok Sabha polls. Nitish’s meeting with Patnaik was largely fruitful in that context.

Splendid Neutrality

It is pertinent to decipher the political orbit in which the Odisha Chief Minister is right now instead of jumping to hasty conclusions about his future role in Indian politics. His party, the Biju Janata Dal, is part of what is known as the larger Janata Parivar, of which the Janata Dal (United), Rashtriya Janata Dal, Samajwadi Party and others, rooted to the ideology of socialism belong. Naveen Patnaik’s father, Biju Patnaik, was a towering leader of the undivided Janata Dal in the 1990s. After his father’s death, he formed the BJD or Biju Janata Dal, following the split in the Janata Dal in 1997.

Patnaik after that formed an alliance with the BJP and served as prime minister late Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s Cabinet from 1998 till 2000. In 2000, the BJD-BJP alliance won the Assembly election in Odisha, and Patnaik became the Odisha Chief Minister.

But in the run-up to the 2009 Lok Sabha election, Patnaik walked out from the alliance with the BJP and decided to stay neutral to it, as well as the Congress party and other political outfits. Since 2009, Patnaik has not entered into any alliance with any party in what is described in political circles as his policy of “splendid neutrality”.

Of course, the BJD has supported the BJP government at the Centre on various issues but has resisted becoming its ally since 2009. Patnaik has also maintained an equidistant approach towards Congress and steadfastly stayed away from the hurly-burly of national politics. He is hardly seen attending political meetings in Delhi or other States beyond Odisha.

Observers believe Patnaik might be unwilling to break his “splendid neutrality” at this stage but might change his mind if the BJP loses the 2024 polls. He might have been maintaining a working relationship with the Narendra Modi government in keeping with the interests of his state.

But in the event of the BJP falling short of the numbers it needs in 2024, Naveen might think of siding with the formation of his like-minded parties and leaders,” a senior JDU leader said, adding, “Temperamentally, Naveen is a secular leader opposed to the politics of hate and polarisation. Ideologically, he is close to Nitish and others who have their roots in socialist politics.”

Moreover, Nitish is known for his “persuasive power”. He is believed to have invested in persuading his “long-time friend” Naveen to think of joining the collective efforts of the opposition to defeat the BJP at the national level. Insiders of the Grand Alliance or Mahagathbandhan believe that it was an “ice-breaking” meeting between Nitish and Naveen, which will be followed up in due course.

Karnataka Election

Opposition parties are keeping a close watch on the Karnataka Assembly polls. At her meeting with Nitish at Kolkata on 26 April, Mamata Banerjee expressed her commitment to ousting the BJP government at the Centre and reportedly suggested her Bihar counterpart invite all opposition parties to a meeting in Patna.

Sources said Nitish was at work to organise such a meeting of all non-BJP parties after the Karnataka polls to take the process of opposition unity forward. Banerjee and her party do not have stakes in Karnataka, but she has appealed to the Karnataka electorate to “vote out the BJP, which is dangerous”. Most opposition leaders wish the Congress—the largest party in the Opposition camp—wrests the state from the BJP, for it is seen as the gateway to the Southern states in the 2024 election. The outcome in Karnataka will be a crucial message to every regional opposition party across the country, not just the Congress.

Ahead of the joint meeting of the opposition—whether it is finally held in Patna or elsewhere—Nitish will meet the Nationalist Congress Party and Shiv Sena chiefs Sharad Pawar and Uddhav Thackeray, respectively, and his Jharkhand counterpart, Hemant Soren.

If the Congress wins in Karnataka, it will spur opposition outfits to step up their tirade against the BJP. But if the BJP manages to retain Karnataka, it will surely be a grave setback to this process.

The author is a senior journalist, media educator, and independent researcher in social anthropology. The views are personal.

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