As the Bihar assembly election results started pouring in, veteran Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar made a serious mistake while going through his otherwise admirable election analysis on CNN-IBN. Faced with a question whether Nitish Kumar can become a rallying point for the opposition at the national level, Aiyar discounted the possibility on the ground that he did not have a presence outside Bihar.
Obviously, Mani Shankar Aiyar did not have in mind the past example of Vishwanath Pratap Singh when the latter became a rallying point for anti-Congress forces in the late 1980s and cobbled up a coalition which was supported by the Left and the BJP at the same time. V.P. Singh too had very little political presence outside Uttar Pradesh. It may be a strange coincidence that Nitish Kumar whose political star started rising at that time now holds out the same possibility.
Certainly it is not prudent at this stage to jump to a specific conclusion but that possibility would always remain. Before the Bihar elections, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, also the Trinamool Congress chief, expressed her support for Nitish Kumar and wished for a victory of the Janata Dal-United-Rashtriya Janata Dal-Congress combine. Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, of the Aam Aadmi Party, had already expressed his support to the Nitish Kumar-led conglomeration.
It can be taken for granted that the Left would like to see the Bihar chief minister as a rallying factor for anti-BJP politics at the national level as after the demise of Jyoti Basu, the Left is not in a position to throw any leader at the pan-India level who commands acceptance from other political parties.
Interesting will be the case of the Congress. It is a known fact now that Rahul Gandhi played a vital role in persuading Lalu Prasad to accept Nitish Kumar as the leader of the Grand Alliance and the future chief minister if the alliance won the elections. But Congress is certain to have reservations in accepting Nitish Kumar as even an informal leader of any future anti-BJP political platform. This has already been indirectly indicated by former finance minister P. Chidambaram without taking Nitish's name in an interview to the electronic media while results were still coming in.
The message of Chidambaram's interview was that the Congress would act as a junior partner where the party is weak but would certainly take the leading role where it enjoys a strong position. Moreover, long years of Nitish Kumar's alliance with the BJP in Bihar and his track record of anti-Congress politics as a disciple of Jayaprakash Narayan might come in the way of the Congress accepting his leading role.
The Samajwadi Party will certainly remain an enigma. Mulayam Singh Yadav must now be ruing his decision to walk out of the JD-U-led alliance in Bihar. His so-called third front has not been able to cut any ice in the Bihar polls. Besides, he is senior to Nitish Kumar in age. But Mulayam Singh is a pragmatic man. Moreover the Communist Party of India-Marxist has very good influence over him and it is not inconceivable that the Left might step in while prevailing upon the Samajwadi Party to have at least some sort of understanding at the national level.
The factor that can go in favour of Nitish Kumar is his suave personality. He enjoys good equations with Navin Patnaik and Jayalalithaa, the chief ministers of Odisha and Tamil Nadu. As a railway minister, Nitish Kumar had a tiff with the mercurial Mamata Banerjee when he truncated the Eastern Railway to create a new division. But at a later stage, he was able to iron out his difference with her and the two now enjoy a very good relation.
As the chief minister of Bihar, Nitish Kumar has an enviable record. So far as vital parameters of development are concerned, like net per capita state domestic product as percentage of all India per capita net national income, annual growth rate in agriculture and allied activities, decrease in percentage of population below poverty line and life expectancy of people of Bihar, he has been able to show impressive results. It is true that he has yet to come out of the tag of a regional leader. But the electoral triumph and his several stints as a central minister give his case a certain legitimacy.
(Amitava Mukherjee is a senior journalist and commentator. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)