Will Nitish Kumar be Opposition's PM candidate in 2024? Many wary of his 'U-turns'
Nitish Kumar, once seen as a potential rival to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, broke ranks with the BJP-led NDA coalition Tuesday to stake claim as head of the rival 'Mahagathbandhan' (Grand Alliance) to be chief minister of Bihar for the eighth time.
As he snapped ties with the BJP, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has once again been pitched as a prime ministerial candidate for the 2024 elections by some, but a majority of the Opposition still view the JD(U) leader with suspicion citing his numerous 'U-turns'.
Along with Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrashekar Rao and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee are other prominent figures with aspirations to become the nation's next prime minister.
"If you assess the personalities in the country, Nitish Kumar is eligible to become prime minister. We are not making any claim today, but he has all the qualities of a prime minister," Upendra Kushwaha, president of the Janata Dal (U) National Parliamentary Board said in Patna.
Sharad Yadav, the leader of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), has suggested that Kumar might run for prime minister in the Lok Sabha elections of 2024.
After stepping down as the chief minister of the NDA, Nitish Kumar was questioned about whether he would be the face of the next Lok Sabha elections as he left Patna's Raj Bhawan.
RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav had derisively named Kumar as "paltu ram", a person who took repeated 'U-turns', after he walked out of the RJD-JD(U)-Congress grand alliance in 2017 and joined hands with the BJP.
In October 2019, Yadav had described Kumar as a "chameleon-like" character and had ruled out any possibility in the future of him returning to the secular alliance fold.
On the strength of a campaign against the "jungle raj" of Lalu Prasad's RJD in Bihar, Kumar first rose to the position of chief minister in 2005.
Kumar dumped the BJP in 2013 after Narendra Modi was projected as the prime ministerial candidate for the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. Kumar then forged a grand alliance with RJD and Congress and returned as chief minister in 2015. In 2017, he left the grand alliance, blaming the RJD for stifling state government and engaging in corruption.
Nitish Kumar's political career has been free of allegations of corruption, according to Shiv Sena leader Priyanka Chaturvedi, but the frequency with which he has switched political alliances works against him. "Nitish Kumar has been an ally who keeps changing his mind often. This is one thing that goes against him, the dependability factor," said Chaturvedi, a Rajya Sabha member.
She emphasised that Uddhav Thackeray had also steadfastly opposed the BJP and led a clean government while serving as chief minister, particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic. "There are worthy opposition leaders, and it has to be seen in 2024 how things will shape up," Chaturvedi said.
Leaders of the Left and Trinamool Congress welcomed the Bihar development but declined to comment on Kumar's prospects for becoming prime minister.
NCP leader Majeed Memon said Kumar could be one of the few people, including Sharad Pawar and Mamata Banerjee, who could be seen as prime ministerial challengers in 2024. "There are some regional satraps. Kumar is also among them. He certainly is a contender. But ultimately, it will be a unanimous decision on who will be the challenger to the BJP," Memon, a former Rajya Sabha member, said.
He acknowledged that Kumar had been accused of changing political allies, but in regional politics, such behaviour may not matter much. "People should be condoning such unsteady stand by Kumar," Memon said.
Though Kumar was frequently referred to as "paltu ram" for switching political allies in order to maintain his position of power, NCP spokesman Clyde Crasto said the Bihar chief minister's decision to ditch the BJP could be a sign of future political realignments. "It is said that what happens in Bihar politics today, finds expression at the national level in the future. This is the beginning of the end of NDA," Crasto said.
Former JD(U) leader R C P Singh, once a close aide of Kumar, said the Bihar chief minister would never become the prime minister, even if he took seven births.
BJP Rajya Sabha member Vivek Thakur termed Kumar walking out of NDA as 'good riddance'. "There is no limit to Nitish Kumar's ambition. He works neither for Bihar nor his party but only to further his ambition. He has nursed prime ministerial ambitions. However, there is no vacancy for Prime Minister, and India has also got a very good President and vice president," Thakur said. The BJP leader said a web series 'Paltu Ram Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3' could be made on Kumar's political somersaults.
"Nitish Kumar will be more of an acceptable face for a joint opposition candidate compared to Mamata Banerjee in 2024. To defeat BJP, you have to either change the rules of engagement or beat them at their own game," suspended Congress leader Sanjay Jha said.
(With inputs from PTI)