<b>Fifth Columnist:</b> Chimerical unity
Sonia Gandhi’s attempt to cobble together an opposition alliance for the President’s may not be enough
Democratic politics is all about periodic shows of strength, of thrust and parry and of showmanship and claims, all aimed at changing the discourse and atmospherics of the day.
Democracy presents any number of opportunities where these countervailing forces come into play, never more evident than during the course of an election.
This is why the presidential poll in India has assumed such significance. Coming roughly two years before the Lok Sabha elections, it is the sign for an embattled opposition to get its act together and prove that they have what it takes to stop the BJP and the NDA juggernaut in its stride.
The point is, can they? One significant reason for the rise of Narendra Modi has been the fact that the motley assemblage of opposition parties has been unable to close its ranks when it matters the most. On the one occasion when it has, the Bihar assembly elections in 2015, they proved that the BJP and Modi are not invincible.
But that was more an exception than the rule. As political parties gird up their loins for another epic battle for the incumbent at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, it is far from clear whether indeed there is a joint opposition candidate.
While on paper, the announcement of Meira Kumar’s name as the `official’ candidate of an 18-party alliance to oppose the NDA’s nominee Ram Nath Kovind has gladdened the hearts of non-BJP forces, its ramifications on ground could be quite something else. Apart from the photo-ops with leading opposition lights smiling for the cameras, it is quite clear that their unity could be chimerical.
For instance, Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar’s unequivocal support for the NDA candidate for President has once again raised the specter of his `ghar wapsi’ into the BJP-led NDA. Kumar, running an uneasy alliance with former archrival Lalu Yadav, has shown that he is his own man. In the process, Nitish is the only politician in India to have run successful governments with both the BJP and the Congress in the last decade-and-a-half. Needless to say, Kumar’s stand has created fissures in the efforts of non-BJP parties to put up a joint candidate. With 71 MLAs and two MPs, Kumar’s JD (U) has substantial votes in the electoral college for electing the head of the state.

Nitish Kumar, after his initial outburst against Modi in late 2013 when the BJP national executive in Goa chose the then Gujarat chief minister as its party nominee for the prime minister, has shown signs of coming close to his former allies. His support for Modi on a number of national issues, which initially raised eyebrows, has now confirmed the worst fears of the opposition that the Bihar chief minister could be breaking ranks. Now it is certain that he has.
On May 27, Nitish skipped an invite issued by Congress president Sonia Gandhi to attend a meeting of like-minded parties to discuss a consensual presidential candidate, choosing instead to be part of a meeting to honour the visiting Mauritius prime minister Pravind Jugnauth. While official denials and counter-denials were issued, it now turns out that the Bihar chief minister was in no mood to support the Congress-backed presidential candidate in any case, a fact later confirmed by JD (U) leader KC Tyagi.
Naturally, Lalu Yadav’s RJD is peeved. On Thursday, he called Nitish’s backing for the NDA candidate a `historical blunder’. But then Nitish is known to chart out his own course. In 2012, as a BJP ally, he supported the UPA’s presidential nominee Pranab Mukherjee against NDA’s Purno Sangma.
Sadly for the opposition parties, Kumar is by no means the only one in the undivided Janata family to break ranks. Former prime minister HD Deve Gowda, expected to lend his weight behind the Congress-backed candidate Meira Kumar, chose to stay away, attending instead a lightweight meeting of the local Congress party in his native Bangalore.

Samajwadi Party patriarch Mulayam Singh Yadav too has backed the NDA candidate. “Ram Nath Kovind is a good candidate. I have a very old relationship with him and the BJP has selected a strong candidate. The most important thing is that the BJP has a majority and I cannot say what the opposition will do,” he told a media outlet, quite candidly.
While Sharad Pawar and his NCP are seemingly and belatedly behind the Congress, the Maratha strongman, quoting Shivaji, told his supporters in Pune that the great Chhatrapati was never against any religion. It is a potential signal that there could be cross-voting on July 17 when ballots are cast for the President’s election, a fact of matter not lost on the opposition and admitted as much by CPI’s Atul Anjan, even as lobbying in Delhi and state capitals is in full throttle.
In comparison, the NDA machine is running smoothly. Kovind has the backing of several chief ministers, apart from BJP’s own. Odisha, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and a clutch of North East chief ministers have pledged support for the BJP candidate. Sure, there are powerful chief ministers like Mamata Bannerjee, who are most likely to support Meira Kumar’s candidature, but that may not be enough. For the BJP, a comprehensive presidential victory would lay down the tone and tenor for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
Ranjit Bhushan