From the time that the contest for president loomed large, the likelihood of the Opposition getting its own candidate into Rashtrapati Bhavan has seemed highly unlikely. Yet, it is a “battle of ideologies”, insisted the Opposition, a symbolic fight in which the loser would also be making an important point. As it turns out, however, it is set to lose both battles, the real as well as the symbolic. The announcement of its own candidate, Meira Kumar, by a 17-party alliance on Thursday, to take on the NDA’s Ram Nath Kovind, has only underlined its surrendered chances. Of course, Meira Kumar, former Lok Sabha Speaker with a fine record in public service, is a distinguished presidential contender in her own right. But the Opposition bumbling that has preceded the declaration of her candidature — it came too late, for one, and showed up the Opposition as too divided — has ensured that she will now be seen only as the non-BJP parties’ Dalit riposte to the NDA’s Dalit choice. JD(U) chief Nitish Kumar’s abstention from the Thursday meeting after he broke ranks to extend his support to Kovind a day earlier is a debilitating setback to the notion of “opposition unity” which the presidential contest was also meant to showcase.
This belatedness, the inertia and me-too-ness that has characterised the Opposition’s moves, and lack of them, in the build-up to the election for the highest constitutional office in the land, is not incidental. It is a continuation of the heavy-footedness the Opposition has displayed in other arenas in the three years of the Modi government. The presidential contest may carry only a symbolic significance, given that the numbers are loaded in favour of the government, but both in the contest of ideas and on the street, non-NDA parties have appeared overtaken and reactive. Last year, they were slow to articulate a response to demonetisation, allowing the government to run ahead with its bold and disruptive move. In the two large agitations that have roiled large swathes of the country and posed the biggest challenge to government policy in recent times — among farmers and in Dalits — the Opposition parties have arrived late to the ferment, failed to take the lead.
Ever since 2014, India has had a strong and decisive government but it has lacked an energetic and coherent Opposition to keep it on its toes, hold it accountable and deepen crucial debates. That most contests should be one-sided, and appear to be so too, makes democracy itself seem less lively and stimulating. The presidential contest could have been an occasion for the Opposition to have its say, even though not its president. It has become only yet another moment for it to play catch-up.