Congress incompetence and Nitish’s political calculations are making Opposition unity difficult | editorials | Hindustan Times
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Congress incompetence and Nitish’s political calculations are making Opposition unity difficult

The Bihar chief minister also appears that he sees 2019 increasingly as lost cause, and thus he wants to ensure that he remains on the right side of the Centre

editorials Updated: Jul 06, 2017 09:57 IST
Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar exchange greetings with former Governor Ram Nath Kovind at a Roza-Iftaar party in Patna, June 17, 2017
Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar exchange greetings with former Governor Ram Nath Kovind at a Roza-Iftaar party in Patna, June 17, 2017(PTI)

Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar and Congress are allies in the state, as a part of the Mahagatbandhan. At the national level, the two made efforts to forge a common understanding against the BJP. But over the past two weeks, clear differences emerged. The first was on the issue of the presidential candidate, where Nitish Kumar chose to go with Bihar governor Ram Nath Kovind even as the rest of the Opposition put up former Speaker of the Lok Sabha Meira Kumar as a candidate. The Opposition even projected her as ‘Bihar ki beti’ to put Nitish Kumar in a spot, but he did not budge. Then, even as Congress boycotted the special midnight session to roll out the Goods and Services Tax, Janata Dal (United) sent a representative. This has now been followed by an escalating war of words, with Nitish Kumar himself placing the onus of this Opposition disunity on Congress.

All of this reflects a churning in Opposition ranks, with major implications for 2019. Two threads are clear. The first, as Nitish Kumar correctly pointed out, is Congress’ internal weaknesses. While credit is due to Sonia Gandhi for bringing leaders together on a common platform, the party has been unable to display leadership at the right time. If it had nominated the presidential candidate before the BJP came up with Mr Kovind, Nitish Kumar would have had no choice but to back it. If it had indeed nominated Meira Kumar, it would have put BJP on the defensive and Mr Kovind’s nomination would have been seen as a response. The Congress repeatedly has allowed BJP to set the agenda; it has delayed decisions; and it needs to do more to show leadership and magnanimity with others in the Opposition.

But that is not to say Nitish Kumar’s actions have smelled of political honesty. Over the past year, he has given more than enough signals that he is open to rapprochement with the Modi government. His support for demonetisation, his muted criticism of the Centre, his support to Mr Kovind are all examples of a larger political calculation. The Bihar chief minister wants insurance against RJD chief Lalu Prasad. If at any point he begins to see Lalu Prasad as a liability, it seems he wants the option of collaborating with the BJP open.

It also appears that he sees 2019 increasingly as lost cause, and thus he wants to ensure that he remains on the right side of the Centre. But he also wants to keep his foot in the Opposition camp - for if an alliance develops and he becomes the pre-2019 face of it, it is an opportunity worth preserving. All of this explains the mixed signals Nitish Kumar is sending. But what it means that the Congress incompetence and Nitish Kumar’s calculations are making the prospect of Opposition unity elusive even before it takes shape.