After Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar, is it the turn of the Sharad Pawar-led Nationalist Congress Party to walk out of the fledgling opposition grouping?

Speculation about the NCP’s imminent exit was rife when Pawar’s party went unrepresented at the meeting of opposition parties called by Congress president Sonia Gandhi on Friday. This was the first meeting of opposition parties after Nitish Kumar’s exit, called ostensibly to draw up a joint action plan to take on the Modi government. But it was actually meant to demonstrate that the opposition remains united and is battle ready to challenge the Bharatiya Janata Party.

However, this message was lost because of the NCP’s absence.

While senior NCP leader Praful Patel publicly declared that their party was boycotting the meeting, the Congress put up a brave face, stating that Pawar had called to say that he would have personally participated in the meeting but was unable to do so as he was unwell. Since the NCP chief has attended earlier meetings of opposition parties, the Congress was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

The NCP is apparently upset that the Congress had chosen to believe that their candidate did not vote for Congress president’s political secretary Ahmed Patel in the recent Gujarat Rajya Sabha election. Patel won by one vote. Both the NCP and the Janata Dal (U) candidates claimed they had voted for Patel. The Congress did not say anything on this issue publicly but its leaders let it be known in private conversations that the NCP had voted for the BJP and that it was the Janata Dal (U) candidate who had cast the deciding vote.

Trust deficit

Though the Congress and the NCP have been partners at the Centre and in Maharashtra, there is a trust deficit between the two parties. Pawar is reputed to be a canny politician who maintains good relations with parties across the political spectrum. It is difficult to predict his political moves as he has a tendency to keep his friends and foes constantly on tenterhooks. The Congress is convinced that the NCP has a standing offer of support to the BJP in Maharashtra in case the latter’s coalition partner Shiv Sena walks out on the Fadnavis government.

Pawar’s nephew Ajit Pawar is being probed by investigative agencies for financial irregularities committed during his tenure as Maharashtra deputy chief minister. Similarly, Praful Patel could also find himself in trouble because of his handling of the civil aviation ministry in the United Progressive Alliance government.

Consequently, the NCP is under pressure from the Modi government to stay away from the united opposition coalition being proposed with an eye on the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. This effort at bringing together disparate opposition parties on a common platform has already suffered a major setback when Janata Dal (United) chief and Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar exit the grouping to join hands with the BJP. Nitish Kumar had been a chief advocate of opposition unity and was seen as the most credible face of this camp.

However, his colleague, Rajya Sabha MP Sharad Yadav is veering towards the opposition. Though Yadav did not attend the Friday meeting, his camp follower Anwar Ali participated in the proceedings. Nitish Kumar, who was in the capital for a meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was unmoved by Sharad Yadav’s growing proximity to Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Lalu Prasad Yadav. “He is free to go where he wants,” Nitish Kumar declared.

United fight

Having been dealt a body blow by Nitish Kumar, the opposition parties are now trying to regroup and put up a united fight against the Modi government. Sonia Gandhi has been asked to set up a committee to draw up an action plan for the coming months before they meet for the winter session of Parliament in November. Having made a start with the elections of the president and vice president, the opposition is keen to keep up the momentum of its fight even though it is facing serious roadblocks in this journey. While they plan to hit the road to highlight issues such as the agrarian crisis and joblessness, they are expected to make a splash at RJD’s public rally in Patna on August 27. The RJD chief has extended an invitation to all the opposition leaders to attend this rally which could well mark the beginning of the opposition battle against a resurgent BJP.

However, it could well prove to be an uphill task as the BJP is working equally hard to expand its footprint in states where it does not have a strong presence. While building its own party organisation, the BJP is ruthlessly poaching leaders from other political parties to shore up its strength. At the same time, the BJP is also making an all-out bid to destroy the credibility of the opposition parties and create fissures in their camp so that their unity moves do not fructify.