It is early days yet, but both the ruling party and the Opposition seem to have already begun preparations for the big battle in 2024. If Nitish Kumar, after his latest somersault to retain his chief ministerial gaddi but with the RJD this time, has made a preliminary effort to form some sort of a third front, the BJP too has begun strengthening its organisational structures with an eye on the next Lok Sabha poll. And Prime Minister Narendra Modi is busy launching new aircraft carriers, inaugurating the freshly revamped Central Vista and unveiling the statue of the iconic freedom fighter Subhash Chandra Bose at India Gate. If anyone thinks these do not enhance his popularity, ask the common people. Even though he had sought 10 years of uninterrupted power in his maiden address to Parliament as prime minister, clearly he seems to have changed his mind. He is now game for yet another five-year term. Which considering the totality of the political scenario does not seem out of reach. But as they say there can always be a slip between the cup and the lip. Between now and April-May 2024 anything can happen. For instance, the Opposition leaders can shed their ingrained mutual hostilities, put aside their clashing ambitions, suppress their egos and agree to join hands with one another in the singular pursuit of victory in the next election. Of course it is a big ask, and going by their record and an ingrained inability to work as a team player, notwithstanding Nitish Kumar’s efforts a joint anti-BJP front may not still materialise. Mr Kumar was recently in the capital and met whoever he could in the Opposition with the single message: Unite or you shall perish. He met Sharad Pawar, Rahul Gandhi, Om Prakash Chautala, Arvind Kejriwal, Sitaram Yechury, D Raja and a few others to explore the possibility of a joint front. Now, even if such a front were to fructify into actual reality, there can be no guarantee that the voter will repose trust in it. The voter is highly sceptical of what in popular parlance is called a khichdi sarkar. Even if the Opposition were to reach an understanding on avoiding a division of the anti-BJP votes by ensuring one-to-one contests in the maximum number of constituencies, it will still be hard for it to convince the voter that a hotchpotch coalition can provide a stable government. They know this from experience. The lack of a prime ministerial candidate will hurt the Opposition for sure, but what may hurt its prospects most is the continuing popularity of Mr Modi. Numerous opinion polls have revealed how his popularity ratings continue to surge despite multiple problems such the lack of jobs in the economy, high food and fuel prices, growing lawlessness, etc. Though Nitish Kumar denies harbouring any prime ministerial ambitions, he may still have to grapple with the question as to who else in the Opposition fits the bill for projection as prime minister.
Rahul Gandhi, now on a nation-wide Yatra in his nth bid to acquire the mantle of a leader, will of course be pushed by the Congress to head the opposition coalition. How many Opposition leaders can vouchsafe with hand on heart that they would accept the Gandhi scion as their prime ministerial candidate? Mamata Banerjee, now facing heat from the stepped-up investigations by various central agencies against her close lieutenants, has publicly vowed to defeat Modi by teaming up with “ Nitish, Hemant Soren, Akhilesh …” But she is unwilling to sup with Rahul Gandhi. Of late, she too seems to be aspiring aspire for the prime ministerial gaddi, leaving the chief ministership for nephew Abhishek Banerjee. Sharad Pawar might fancy his chances, especially when there is no agreement on Rahul Gandhi, but his age could prove a dampener. Besides, there is no guarantee that the present Shiv Sena-NCP-Congress alliance will still be in place in 2024. The political scene is still fluid and anything can happen between now and 2024. However despite some obvious failings, Mr Modi still remains on course to win yet another five-year term. Of course, this should not stop Mr Kumar from trying to unite the Opposition — and, in case that does not work out, from going back to the BJP in sackcloth and ashes.