Cult personality has always been a major factor in politics. In the past nine years, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has marketed Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a larger-than-life figure who has no opposition. Therefore, weighed down by the cult personality of Modi, the Opposition is in search of a strong face to lead it. However, the biggest challenge before it is to find a consensus candidate, someone who can take along all the political parties that will constitute a united opposition. The Opposition unity hinges on this important factor.
These include Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee, Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal, Telangana CM K Chandrashekhar Rao, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) chief Sharad Pawar, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, and former Maharashtra CM Uddhav Thackeray. While Gandhi is not acceptable to the rest of the Opposition as its face, Nitish is fast emerging as a front-runner.
This year has been one of meetings between the major stakeholders in the Opposition – Mamata, Nitish, and Chandrashekhar Rao have all been closeted in talks with Thackeray, whose battle with the BJP in Maharashtra has elevated him to the top rung of the ladder. However, his batting for Congress to be included in the united Opposition is not acceptable to Mamata, Kejriwal, Chandrashekhar Rao, and Samajwadi Party chief and former Uttar Pradesh CM Akhilesh Yadav. The rest, including Nitish, support Thackeray’s stand on Congress.
Thackeray, a former ally of the BJP, was lauded as one of the best chief ministers for his deft handling of the Covid-19 pandemic in Maharashtra, one of the worst-affected states. Sanjay Raut, MP of the Shiv Sena faction headed by Thackeray, is vocally pitching for his boss as the face of the Opposition for the PM’s post.
“Who will lead the Opposition is the bigger question than who will form the Opposition,” says Dr Ravinder Kaur Cheema, a former head of the history department, Khalsa College.
Despite the major parties seeking Opposition unity being opposed to Congress as a part of a united Opposition, Nitish is keen on the grand old party being there. He had along with his deputy Tejashwi Yadav met Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge and Rahul Gandhi recently, fueling speculation that Nitish is canvassing for his own candidature as the face of the Opposition.
The leader believes that Congress must anchor the opposition front. He feels that mutual agreements rather than disagreements will benefit all the Opposition parties who should chart a common path. There is also a reason for Congress to be an important inclusion in this front. It is placed as a direct electoral rival of the BJP in as many as 250 constituencies, making the Bihar Chief Minister drive home the point that Opposition unity sans Congress is not possible.
However, K Chandrashekhar Rao (Bharata Rashtra Samithi), Mamata Banerjee (TMC), Akhilesh Yadav (Samajwadi Party), Arvind Kejriwal (Aam Admi Party), Sitaram Yechury and D Raja (CPI), Sharad Pawar (NCP), and Om Prakash Chautala (Indian National Lok Dal) are strongly opposed to Gandhi being the face of the opposition.
Nitish has in the past clarified that he harbours no prime ministerial ambitions.
“My sole aim is to unite the Opposition and I will work for it,” Nitish had said earlier this year in January.
Over the years, Nitesh has switched between various political parties. For a major part, he has been in an alliance with the BJP. However, after he quit his alliance with the saffron party in August 2022, he has moved into a new ideological zone and has become a mover to shake up the Opposition and bring them into a united fold. He wants the Opposition narrative to be focused on the failures of the Narendra Modi-led government rather than it becoming a narrative of personalities.
Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrashekhar Rao has consolidated his position in national politics. Rao has given his party a new name —from the Telangana Rashtra Samithi to the Bharata Rashtra Samithi— and has dived into national politics with a plan. He has travelled to the neighbouring Maharashtra and held a luncheon meeting at the house of Uddhav Thackeray, former Chief Minister of Maharashtra and head of Shiv Sena (Uddhav Balasaheb Thackeray) faction. At this closed-door meeting, the two leaders discussed the coming together of the Opposition. The Telangana Chief Minister has also been speaking in Hindi, indicating that he is ready for a more challenging national role.
Nobel laureate Amartya Sen said in January that regional parties will have an important role to play in the 2024 general elections. He had then told PTI that Mamata Banerjee clearly has the ability to be the next Prime Minister of India. TMC MP Shatrugan Sinha too has a take on the face for the Opposition in the 2024 parliamentary elections. According to Sinha, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi will be the Prime Minister and Banerjee will emerge as a major gamechanger.
While Mamata’s aggressive politics is seen as an asset, her lack of proficiency in Hindi, the language of national politics, may put her behind, say political observers.
Kejriwal’s political successes in Delhi and Punjab and the high-pitched election campaign in Goa clearly puts him in the lead too.
“It is tough to bring together the AAP, TMC, BRS, and the Samajwadi Party, as they see Congress as a political rival in their own states. Each of these leaders wants to be the PM. No one among them will step back from their ambitions,” says Jayant Mishra, who has been closely studying the Opposition’s attempts at unity.