In politics a week is a long time and this is what the 17 Opposition parties that got together to seek support for their joint Presidential candidate, Meira Kumar, must have realised on Friday. Ironically, the fallout in the Maha Gathbandhan (Grand Alliance) took place on the issue of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) implementation, which brought to fore the differences amongst the allies.

The Congress, which sought to take the lead in forging the Opposition unity, found itself pushed into a corner, along with the Left parties, Trinamool Congress, the DMK and some others, while its last week’s partners, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) decided to break ranks and attend the gala event held in the Central Hall of Parliament to mark the launch of the new tax regime. The midnight ceremony was a precursor to the collapse of the superficial unity among the Opposition parties, which was visibly fragile from the outset in the absence of any tangible common ground and the evident ambiguity regarding the overall leadership of the alliance.

NCP supremo Sharad Pawar attended the function, along with his daughter Supriya Sule and party colleagues to drive home the point to the Congress unequivocally that his support could not be taken for granted. Pawar’s stand became politically significant, since Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s aides had spent over three hours last week to convince him to support Meira Kumar’s candidature. Pawar was reluctant, since in his estimation, the alliance nominee had zero chance of winning and therefore to take on the collective might of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) would have been an exercise in futility. However, persistent efforts by the Congress finally yielded results, as he agreed to back Meira Kumar, daughter of the late Jagjivan Ram, an opponent of his mentor, the late Yashwant Rao Chavan.

On Friday morning, Pawar’s colleague and former Union minister Praful Patel tweeted to announce his party’s decision to attend the Central Hall gathering, justifying it by bluntly stating that when all parties had been on board to pass the GST law, little purpose would be served in resisting it at the time when it was being made operative. The message was both forthright and direct, as Patel’s tweets conveyed to the NDA and the UPA allies that the NCP was by no means bound to pursue the Congress agenda at all times. The distancing from the grand old party further conveyed to the BJP as well as the Prime Minister that the NCP had no political strings attached to it and thus was capable of making its own decisions if the need arose. Pawar could have underplayed his disagreement with the Congress, but by sitting in the front row next to BJP patriarch L.K. Advani, he was desirous of making his presence conspicuous.

Pawar is decidedly one of the most experienced politicians in the country, having assumed the office of Maharashtra’s Chief Minister in 1978, after outmanoeuvring an astute politician like Indira Gandhi. He had rejoined the Congress subsequently, before being expelled from the organisation in 1999, when he, along with P.A. Sangma and Tariq Anwar, had raised the issue of Sonia Gandhi’s foreign origin at a meeting of the Congress Working Committee. However, he has had a functional equation with his former party and the two parties ruled the state for three terms. Ever since the defeat of the UPA in the 2014 Parliamentary polls, the NCP has been taking independent stand on matters of its own importance.

Equally important is the decision of the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party in attending the midnight tryst with destiny on the GST issue. Their presence was also aimed at conveying in no uncertain terms to the Congress that their participation in the Grand Alliance was specific to the support for a joint Opposition presidential candidate and it should not be in any manner perceived as their acceptance of the Congress as the head of a likely coalition ahead of the 2019 elections. The Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has already extended support to Ram Nath Kovind, the NDA candidate and has dissociated himself from a Congress led alliance, leaving the question of its leadership

The snub by its associates has placed the Congress in a strenuously unfavourable position, thereby causing a hurtling setback in projecting the party as the principal challenger and nucleus of the Opposition unity. The alliance partners would want a categorical assurance from Sonia Gandhi that she would not attempt to foist her son Rahul Gandhi as the spearhead of the formation, since this would not be acceptable to their rank and file. Thus, the latest moves are aimed at persuading the Congress to give up on the leadership claim, yet play the role of a facilitator.

The party, which vehemently opposed the implementation of the GST, cut a sorry figure when the primary speakers at the Central Hall function acknowledged the contribution of various parties and governments in bringing in the country’s foremost economic reform. President Pranab Mukherjee stated that the GST’s adoption was a tribute to the maturity and wisdom of Indian democracy. In other words, the Congress, which could have basked in the collective glory of all political parties, missed the opportunity to make its colossal contribution paramount.

The chinks in the Opposition unity have become more pronounced than what they were earlier and the Vice President’s election in August would further highlight the fissures. The NDA has the numbers and is comfortably placed in getting its nominee elected as the Vice President. Therefore, the Left inspired efforts to make it appear like an ideological confrontation would look as light-minded and vacuous as the contest for the President is turning out to be. The game is about numbers right now, and not about political beliefs and doctrines. The battle of philosophies would have to wait till 2019 and the Congress will have to reinvent its role if it wants to retain its political relevance.

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