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Presidential poll: How damaging is Meira Kumar’s defeat for Opposition unity?

Chinks in the opposition camp surfaced as over a hundred of its legislators cross-voted in favour of BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA)’s presidential candidate Ram Nath Kovind.

india Updated: Jul 22, 2017 07:50 IST
Srinand Jha and Aurangzeb Naqshbandi
Srinand Jha and Aurangzeb Naqshbandi
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Presidential elections,Opposition unity,Ram nath Kovind
Meira Kumar with Opposition leaders at Parliament during filing of her nominations for the presidential poll. (HT File Photo )

Over a hundred MLAs cross-voted in favour of BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA)’s presidential candidate Ram Nath Kovind, exposing chinks in the opposition camp.

But the Congress and its allies could draw solace from the fact that the margin of victory in the Monday’s polling was less than what was expected by the BJP. The ruling party was hoping over 70% of the electoral college would vote for Kovind, but he ended up with 65.65 % votes only, registering lowest victory margin since the 1974 presidential poll. Joint opposition candidate Meira Kumar got 1,844 votes with a value of 3,67,314.

But the big question is whether the 18-party combine—including the JD (U) that has joined the opposition grouping in vice-presidential polls—will stay united against the NDA in future. Regardless of the outcome of these elections, are the Opposition parties any closer to the goal of putting up a joint fight against the BJP in the 2019 general elections?

Story So Far

Opposition’s unity efforts have come under strain on two occasions in the recent past. First, Janata Dal (United) leader and Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar broke ranks with the Opposition parties in pledging support for the NDA’s presidential nominee. Second, despite the boycott call of the Congress, a clutch of Opposition leaders including those of the Samajwadi Party (SP), Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), JD (U) and the JD(S) attended the midnight session of Parliament to mark the launch of the Goods and Services Tax (GST).

The Bihar model of Opposition unity – which has been sought to be replicated at the national level – has been under considerable stress in past weeks. With state chief minister Nitish Kumar’s alliance partner and Rashtriya Janara Dal (RJD) leader Lalu Prasad and his family members coming under the scanner of the investigating agencies, speculations have been afloat on the possible collapse of the JD(U)-RJD-Congress government.

There have been talks to the effect that Kumar could dump the RJD and switch sides to the BJP.

The Background

Following the electoral steamrolling at the hands of the Narendra Modi-powered BJP in the 2014 general elections, “secular parties” are today confronting threats of being decimated from India’s political landscape because of the aggressive ideological, social and political strategies unleashed by the ruling combine. As the Uttar Pradesh elections have shown, the top BJP leaders have been able to affect a fundamental shift in the matrix of electoral politics.

Besides, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and other investigating agencies have renewed the drive against Prasad and his family members, while other Opposition leaders including SP’s Mulayam Singh Yadav and BSP chief Mayawati have continued to remain under the scanner of the premier investigating agency.

Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee is battling the Sharada chit fund scam. “Unite or perish” is the message that is loud and clear for satraps of regional parties, said C P Bhambri, an eminent political scientist.

Future Scenario

Despite the common threat perceptions from the BJP, Opposition parties remain torn by conflicting interests at the state-level. Traditional rivals such as the BSP and SP have displayed some signs of thawing, while the Left and the TMC in West Bengal or the AIADMK and the DMK in Tamil Nadu have remained at loggerheads.

The Congress – the lead Opposition party – has failed so far to bring regional secular groupings under a common platform.

Nitish Kumar recently said the Congress should do more to connect with the masses rather than rely merely on the unity among political parties, urging the grand-old party to take the lead in establishing a different narrative for the people.

Given the weakened position of the Congress, several claimants to the leadership role in the proposed secular formation have emerged. For its part, the BJP too is not lacking in efforts to prevent the Opposition leaders from uniting.

For the moment, the challenges for Opposition unity are many.

First Published: Jul 21, 2017 12:47 IST