In Nitish Kumar's Support for Kovind, a Subtle Warning to the Congress

The Congress has repeatedly been an obstacle to opposition unity, and it is time it comes to terms with the fact that it is no longer a national party, and thus no longer has the right to demand a pre-eminent position in a coalition of parties.

Nearly every commentator has described the BJP’s choice of Ram Nath Kovind as its presidential candidate as a master stroke, and they are right. But this is not because choosing a respected Koli lawyer and parliamentarian as its candidate for president is likely to cement the support of the powerful Koli community – which accounts for nearly a quarter of the electorate in Gujarat – in the state’s December election. Nor is it because it will weaken the opposition’s Dalit-OBC vote base in Bihar and UP in 2019. Its real Machiavellian brilliance lies in the blow it has dealt to the nascent attempt to forge an issue-based alliance within the opposition against the BJP for the parliamentary elections of that year.

The real surprise is Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar’s immediate, ‘personal’ endorsement of Kovind’s candidacy within minutes of the BJP unveiling him as its candidate, for the need of the opposition to form some kind of united front against the BJP has been apparent ever since its crushing defeat in UP. Kumar cannot but know that his decision has made this far more difficult.

Since he could well be the main beneficiary of opposition unity in 2019, Kumar’s motivations are not easy to grasp. None of the hypotheses being advanced today are convincing. The most plausible is that with no consensus in the opposition on their candidate for president, and knowing that the NDA already had 48% of the electoral college vote, he saw that the opposition had already missed the bus and decided to cut his losses. He, after all, has a government to run and this will become much easier if Delhi, which still holds most of the purse strings, is willing to cooperate.

But Kumar has been running governments in Bihar, and delivering high rates of growth, in the teeth of governments in Delhi ever since 2005. He also broke his near-decade long alliance with the BJP in Bihar when the party chose Narendra Modi to lead it into the 2014 election. So it is difficult to believe that he has decided to ‘sell out’ now in the hope, not even promise, of receiving a few extra pieces of silver from the Centre.

That leaves only one explanation: Kumar does not believe that unity is possible in the conditions that prevail within the opposition today. His insistence that his preference is “personal” indicates that he has not entirely given up on the hope of forging it in the future. But this will not happen until all the parties that are talking about a mahagatbandhan do not accept certain ground rules for cooperation from the outset. That acceptance is nowhere in sight.

The nation got its first glimpse of this when a much touted opposition conclave to hammer out a response to the resurgent alienation in Kashmir came to naught. The idea was mooted by Sharad Yadav in May, but became a non-starter when the Congress, and elements in the Left front, objected to Yashwant Sinha being a part of it when he was a member of the BJP. That it was in all probability the Congress that had first raised this objection became apparent when it announced that it would set up its own committee, under Manmohan Singh, to frame a policy. That committee has met only once so far.

By separating itself, the Congress sealed the fate of the conclave.

Exactly the same thing happened when the opposition began to look for a consensus candidate to oppose the BJP’s nominee for president. Knowing that only a conscience vote, triggered by a towering personality of unimpeachable repute would shake the solid support that the NDA already had, the Left suggested Gopalkrishna Gandhi. Gandhi had a spotless record in the IAS, had risen to become the governor of West Bengal and had taken the unusual step of cautioning his own government against forcing recalcitrant farmers off their land to make way for Tata’s Nano car plant at Singur. He is also the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi.

Kumar welcomed the suggestion and spoke to Sonia Gandhi about it. Then the Congress went silent and nothing more happened. When Modi pulled Kovind out of the hat, Rahul Gandhi, the party’s anointed leader, was in Italy.

Only after Kovind’s name was announced did Sonia hurriedly put forward ‘Bihar ki Beti‘ Meira Kumar. But by then it was too late: the NDA already had 48% of the electoral college votes, and both the TRS in Telegana and the AIADMK had announced their support for Kovind, taking the talk to 55%.

Kashmir and the presidential elections brought the problems within the opposition into the public domain, but they had been manifesting themselves from much earlier. The opposition had been in search of a nationwide mahagatbandhan ever since opposition unity had brought the BJP to a crashing defeat in Bihar. But the Congress, which had been the main beneficiary of that unity in Bihar, turned out to be the main obstacle to unity in every other state that went to the polls.

In Assam, an opposition alliance had all but been forged but fell through when the Congress refused to allocate a mere 20 seats to the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP). The BJP, which had already benefited from the defection of former health minister Himanta Biswa Sarma and Annie Datta, the general secretary of the Pradesh Congress Committee, offered the AGP 25 and ousted the Congress in Assam for the first time.

A similar failure to arrive at a seat-sharing agreement with Sharad Pawar in Maharashtra almost certainly cost the Congress Maharashtra. But its worst faux pas was in Uttar Pradesh, where it did not even agree to talk to Mayawati, to persuade her to form an opposition alliance, and took advantage of Akhilesh Yadav’s weakness to demand and obtain 105 seats, a quarter of the total despite the fact that its already small vote share of 11.63% in 2012 had plummeted to 7.5% in the Lok Sabha elections in 2014, and gained it only two out of 80 seats.

The common thread that binds all these aborted attempts at opposition unity is the inability of the Congress to come to terms with the fact that it is no longer a national party and no longer has the right to demand a pre-eminent position in a coalition of parties. Kumar’s “personal” decision was a warning to it, that while the gatbandhan would very much like the Congress to be a part of it, this can only happen on the basis of equality among them. So long as the Congress claims primacy and political obeisance, it will remain a stumbling block to unity and will end by becoming, de facto, the BJP’s most valued ally.