Presidential candidate Meira Kumar, whom the Congress and 16 other opposition parties selected, recently referred to the samaan vichardhara (likemindedness) that underpinned the unity of these parties. This, she said, came from shared democratic values, and commitment to social justice, inclusive society, transparency, freedom of the press, elimination of poverty and destruction of the caste structure.
However, on June 21, a day before Kumar was nominated, it had become clear that the opposition unity was more about political expediency and individual party compulsions. Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, who had called for opposition unity months ago, broke ranks when he supported Ram Nath Kovind, the BJP's presidential candidate, without waiting for an opposition meeting scheduled for three days later. It gave Nitish the result he, a shrewd politician, wanted—an opportunity to take on his Bihar alliance partners, the Congress and the Rashtriya Janata Dal. The Congress had been unable to win elections and RJD president Lalu Prasad's relatives were accused of corruption. The way things were, they could not help Nitish win elections. In his party meeting on June 30, Nitish suggested as much, saying: “The Congress alone is to blame for the mess the opposition is in. It is because of the Congress that we could not have an alliance in Uttar Pradesh or Assam. They did not take us into confidence on the presidential polls.” He said his party could chart its own course and that the Congress could not claim to be the leader of opposition parties.
Another sign of the opposition's fragile unity came when the Union government celebrated the rollout of the Goods and Services Tax. Though the Congress boycotted the event, leaders from the Janata Dal (United), the Samajwadi Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party, and the Nationalist Congress Party were present, proving that opposition unity could not be only about an anti-Modi stance. Moreover, with the Congress at its lowest ever strength in Parliament, it has become difficult for the party to co-opt regional players.
Said a Congress source: “Keeping together a clutch of opposition parties with diverse issues and ideologies is next to impossible, especially when out of power.” For instance, after Meira Kumar was selected as the opposition's nominee, JD(U) spokesperson K.C. Tyagi said, “The opposition parties wanted Gopalkrishna Gandhi. It is the arrogance of the Congress that made Kumar the unanimous candidate.”
Brushing aside suggestions that it was a lack of unity that led to the delay in the announcement of Kumar's name, a Congress leader said: “There was apprehension that they [the NDA] would name a communal person wedded to the RSS brand of hindutva. We wanted to expose them for that before putting our candidate on the dais, particularly after they failed to show any names when BJP leaders met many of us on the subject of the presidential nominee.” In the upcoming vice-presidential elections, the Congress is said to be open to names that the other parties suggest.
However, with the BJP opening its doors to opposition leaders at the regional level, the question is, how many Congressmen will be able to resist the carrot that BJP president Amit Shah is dangling in front of them? Sources say that concerns about Congress president Sonia Gandhi's health, along with Rahul Gandhi's issues with leadership, are creating a sense of despondency within the party. Currently, leaders of other parties are responding only to Sonia's personal initiatives.