Details are scarce but sources suggest Mr Gandhi and Mr Kumar spoke about the fallout of Wednesday’s INDIA meet, at which Mallikarjun Kharge was proposed as a PM candidate.
Congress MP Rahul Gandhi reached out to Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar Thursday evening, amid talk of yet more rifts in the INDIA bloc ahead of next year’s general election. Sources have told NDTV Mr Gandhi could not speak to the Janata Dal (United) boss since he was in a meeting, but the two are expected to talk later today. While the agenda is not known, there is speculation the two will speak on the fallout of Wednesday’s meeting, at which Nitish Kumar seemed to be overlooked as a possible convener for the group and/or prime ministerial candidate.
In fact, sources told NDTV Nitish Kumar clashed with INDIA leaders on several issues, including renaming the bloc as ‘Bharat’. That proposal was swiftly nixed by the Congress’ Sonia Gandhi. He reportedly also got angry with Manoj Jha of the Rashtriya Janata Dal, a state ally, because Mr Jha translated his speech from Hindi to Tamil for the benefit of political leaders from the DMK.
There was also talk Nitish Kumar lashed out at the Congress after its dismal performance in November’s Assembly polls, which were widely seen as a dry run of INDIA’s pull with voters. The Congress was routed in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan – heartland states that INDIA must win (at least some anyway) in order to defeat the BJP – after seat-sharing squabbles with allies.
The JDU, Bengal’s Trinamool Congress, and the Samajwadi Party of Akhilesh Yadav had all called out the Congress for failing to acknowledge the need to share seats, particularly with regional parties.
At the Delhi meet – itself a flashpoint after the Congress prioritised last month’s polls over strategising for the 2024 Lok Sabha election – Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and her Delhi counterpart, Arvind Kejriwal, set tongues wagging after proposing Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge as a potential convener and even Prime Minister, should INDIA actually defeat the BJP.
Mr Kharge immediately declined, saying he preferred to focus on first winning the election.
Nitish Kumar has publicly refuted talk of his prime ministerial ambitions but, privately, is believed to be an aspirant. His party has been more explicit; in August and September, JDU leaders backed their boss for the country’s top job, and, this month, said he had “all the qualities and experience that a PM should have”. However, the JDU was careful to also acknowledge this must be a collective call.
Ms Banerjee and Mr Kejriwal proposing Mr Kharge for the job, therefore, seemed to catch Nitish Kumar by surprise, and sources said he left the meeting in a huff. JDU spokesperson KC Tyagi later said, “… we (INDIA) will not project any face for 2024. This was the decision taken in Mumbai meeting and such decisions are not changed simply because one person says something.”
The JDU also insisted Nitish Kumar did not leave angry, and underlined its commitment to the bloc, which Mr Tyagi referred to as “… our child”. “We gave birth to it… how can we be angry with it?”
The “Kharge for PM” episode has further unsettled INDIA – which was created to unite the opposition so it might beat the BJP’s election-winning machinery. Nitish Kumar was one of its prime movers, arguably even its founder, and to lose him now, so close to the polls, will be an image issue INDIA cannot afford.