<b>Ruminations:</b> No room for another defeat
The anti-BJP alliance— aimed at Narendra Modi and Amit Shah— needs to first keep its flock together to fight the 2019 elections
The first serious efforts to begin the process of sewing up a mahagathbandhan —that magical term that has had connotations of victory since the Bihar assembly elections of November 2015 —for the 2019 general elections has not come a day too soon. Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar’s meeting with Congress president Sonia Gandhi should end some of the confusion that surrounds the future of the Congress party and Nitish Kumar’s own position in relation to the Bharatiya Janata Party.
The Bihar chief minister is a canny political player. However, in an uncertain political environment, against the background of his alliance with the Rashtriya Janata Dal, he has often been forced to act in the interests of his party, the Janata Dal (United), and for the longevity of his own chief ministership. But, that has come simultaneously with the absence of clarity in the signals that have emanated in the course of doing that – like going out of his way to support demonetisation and making seemingly half-hearted denials to suggestions from the BJP that he review his alliance with the RJD in Bihar. It was not difficult to see that he may have been engaging in optics to get a frisky RJD, the single largest party in the state assembly, on tenterhooks. Besides, Nitish would be aware that he cannot annoy the centre to the point of affecting the running of his government, which Arvind Kejriwal refuses to acknowledge and Mamata Banerjee is learning of the hard way.
The Bihar chief minister's proactive role in bringing together other opposition leaders on a common platform, as evident from his recent meetings in Delhi, should help to remove the smoke over where he stands with the BJP. It ties in with Banerjee's recent meeting with Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik over prospects for an alliance to stop the BJP, which has launched an aggressive campaign in their states.

An anti BJP alliance, one that is aimed at Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, has to have Nitish, Banerjee and Patnaik, three of the most powerful regional leaders in India, with the Congress providing a platform at the national level. All leaders, who were once a part of the NDA under Atal Bihari Vajpayee, are united in their opposition to Modi – for Nitish that was reason behind his parting of ways with the BJP in the alliance government in Bihar. It describes their politics. Looking ahead, they would be up for the long haul because the BJP has targeted their states, apart from Kerala, as the ones the party needs to win to usher in the BJP's so-called 'golden age' as Amit Shah puts it. For that the BJP can be expected to use every known tactic known in politics to exploit any weakness.
Nitish must move forward from his mixed messaging. His personal appeal continues to be strong and he should try and bolster that, with work on the ground.
Mamata, despite her huge personal appeal and mass base, has lost her anti-corruption credentials since coming to power in 2011. Her government is now widely regarded as corrupt. The chit fund scams, involving notables in her party, have added to that negative view. With time running out, and the BJP making inroads into her state, she needs to start a course correction while simultaneously fighting the BJP at every step. That fight is getting bitter by the day.
Patnaik, who will not face the electorate before 2019, has faced corruption allegations, like the mining scam. However, his authoritarian streak and allegations of misgovernance are likely to hurt him more. Into his fourth term now, he has had many a falling out. However, the latest one could be hurting him most: differences with one-time all-weather confidant Jay Panda.
For all three leaders, the big problem while trying to stave off the BJP will be to keep their flock together. The BJP under Modi and Shah is no longer shy of bringing in former opponents to its fold. The name of the game is winning, and the BJP has sent the message that it will do anything to undercut the opposition. If the BJP wins the psy-ops in selling the idea that it is on a permanent winning curve -- as it seems to be successfully doing now -- it is set to attract more and more entrants from the opposition ranks. The bar seems pretty low for the moment -- for e.g., for someone coming from the Congress party, all that a prospective entrant to the BJP has to do is make pungent remarks against Rahul Gandhi.
There is another big prerequisite for the three regional leaders: henceforth there must be a strategy to be part of a winning exercise alone, rather than be an also-ran in a contest. There is already talk of a combined opposition presidential candidate. A presidential election goes through many twists and turns, and sometimes even an opposition party can agree with the ruling party nominee. However, a contest in which the opposition has little chance of winning must be avoided, if only not to add to Rahul Gandhi's long list of successive electoral defeats. Besides, it will undermine opposition credibility. If 2019 is the next big target, the preparation should be to make a match of that, rather than find another way to be trounced by a battle-ready BJP.
Ananda Majumdar