Contests driven by choices are integral to democracy. Individuals, political formations and parties don't always set up challenges to win. They often do so to make a political point or get closer to a political goal.
It wasn't entirely out of petulance that the BJP-led NDA blocked consensus on the presidential and vice-presidential elections. The Opposition alliance felt the electoral challenge, howsoever timid, would help it acquire a larger profile in the run-up to the 2014 elections.
The NDA's strategy in the presidential race backfired on account of Pranab Mukherjee's drawing power and curriculum vitae to occupy Rashtrapati Bhavan. Scales tilted in the UPA's favour when two NDA constituents - the JD(U) and the Shiv Sena - rallied behind its candidate besides the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the BSP.
The support for Mukherjee created an optical illusion of a political bonanza for the UPA despite a sulking Mamata Banerjee who took too long to come on board. The Opposition alliance that was on an expansion drive looked truncated, saddled as it was with a foster candidate in PA Sangma, whose original sponsors, the BJD and the AIADMK, had no formal ties with the NDA.
But the bonhomie was tactical. It dissipated with the JD(U) and the Sena's retreat in camaraderie with the BJP's Jaswant Singh against a second term for the UPA's Hamid Ansari as vice-president.
The picture changed as the time wasn't ripe for Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar - who used the presidential sweepstakes to strike a financial bargain for his state with the UPA regime - to part ways with the NDA. If at all, he would end his increasingly uneasy partnership with the saffron party on what from his standpoint is the bigger issue - that of blocking Narendra Modi's widely predicted prime ministerial bid before or after the 2014 polls.
By the same yardstick, Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati were being politically expedient in backing Mukherjee and Ansari. The former's son, Akhilesh, also needs generous central assistance to keep the promises he made to the electorate in the recent assembly polls. Mayawati is on the same side of the political divide to avoid fighting on two fronts - in Lucknow with the SP and in Delhi with the UPA. The SP was similarly guided to back the Indo-US nuclear deal while the BSP ruled Uttar Pradesh.
That existing tie-ups across the political spectrum are ad hoc is evident from their very nature. Banerjee kept everybody guessing despite being a UPA shareholder until expression of support by the Left forced her to back Mukherjee, who is set to be the republic's first president from West Bengal.
But their future plans are as much in the realm of conjecture as those of the BJD-AIADMK and the SP-BSP, who have thrown their lot with the NDA and UPA nominees, respectively. Many among the UPA's regional allies have another reason to back Mukherjee. They do not want a hostile presidency in the possible 2014 flux where the PM's office could belong to the party that manoeuvres the best.
Even if UPA allies, outside supporters and parties such as the JD(U) back big ticket reforms in return for financial packages, their priorities will change before or after general elections. Numbers notched up by the two big formations could alter the scenario. But for now, the non-aligned group comprising the Left, the SP, BJD, AIADMK, BSP, TDP, RJD and LJP seem natural third-front allies.
The UPA-NDA formations may not survive in a deeply fragmented 2014 scenario. Their shallow political wows and proclivity for flirtations were on display in the tussle over the presidency. Disagreement over suitability of nominees was a ruse. Muck-raking apart, all four candidates in the fray are adequately qualified for the Constitutional offices at stake. The squabble was for short-term gains, protecting social bases and testing the waters for future alliances.