The public sparring between Nitish Kumar and the Congress, over the former breaking Opposition ranks to support the NDA’s candidate for president, may have subsided for now. But it has been revealing. At the very least, it has shown the Opposition as less united than it pretends to be. In fact, with the primary pole of the anti-BJP front, the Congress, looking irresolute and the most eye-catching anti-Modi political persona, Nitish, appearing inconsistent, it sends out a larger message — of an Opposition still floundering three years later, still unable to step up to its role at a time when a strong government needs to be checked and balanced for democracy’s sake. The presidential contest is all but won by the BJP’s choice. But after it is over, and Ram Nath Kovind is installed in Rashtrapati Bhavan, non-BJP parties would do well to reflect on how they let down their own candidate, Meira Kumar, by making her appear as a belated, me-too Dalit choice of a divided front.
In a diverse and layered democracy, the making of alliances and fronts is a hazardous exercise because of interests that are competing and conflicting. Take Nitish, for instance. For him, arguably, the imperative of Opposition unity at the national level must contend with the pulls and pressures of running the Mahagathbandhan government in Bihar. The expectation of consistency or a national framework from regional players, therefore, must take into account their specific and shifting local circumstance. But the present-day Opposition seems too desultory, too incapable of the political hard work required to stitch together varied stories into one. Moreover, even if Nitish’s apparent somersaults could be read as the compulsions of the smaller player, the Congress’s hesitations seem more inexplicable. In the last three years, ever since its defeat at the Centre by the Modi-BJP, the Congress has seemed to be a party in search of itself. It has lost prominent leaders of its own because of its lack of energy. It has seemed strikingly miscast in the role of the leader of the joint Opposition front. The Congress-led Opposition has allowed the BJP and its government to wrest the political initiative on successive issues, including demonetisation, and, as on the GST, to appropriate credit for projects and policies that it had contributed to or begun. The Congress’s churlishness in boycotting the special session in Parliament on the GST was an illustrative example of its inability to think politically, weigh costs, make distinctions.
The Congress may or may not have fully made up with Nitish, but it would do well to listen to him when he says that the Opposition is unduly reactive, that it lacks a plan and a story of its own. Else, this unequal battle between a strong-willed government and its incoherent political opponent looks set to play on.