Weaker players often set the pace in longer races. But rarely do the stronger players follow them to the very end. From the moment the Congress chose one of its own, Pranab Mukherjee, as its candidate for the presidential election, the Bharatiya Janata Party was under pressure to enter the race. The BJP was not consulted on the choice of nominee as the Congress clinched a deal with its partners and allies. Putting up a fight must, therefore, have seemed to the BJP more important than winning the presidential race. But far from seizing the initiative, and dictating the selection of a rival candidate, the main opposition party seemed content to let smaller parties pick the challenger. The BJP can be forgiven for wanting to take advantage of the fissures within the UPA on the nomination of Mr. Mukherjee, and for tailing Mamata Banerjee in trying to prop up former President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam as a candidate. However, in the process, the party opened up cracks within its own National Democratic Alliance. For very different reasons, the BJP could not count on the support of either the Shiv Sena or the Janata Dal (United). Clearly, the BJP was in no position to win new friends without losing old ones. Dropping all pretence of a party destined to lead, it looked every bit a party doomed meekly to follow others.
In turning to P.A. Sangma, the BJP displayed an insipid pragmatism. True, it made sense to support a candidate who had already won the support of two regional parties, the Biju Janata Dal and the AIADMK, than to name a candidate who could further divide the opposition votes. But in playing a cynical waiting game, and in moving from Mr. Kalam to Mr. Sangma within the space of days, the BJP seemed directionless, praying for a saviour instead of actually presenting a real challenge to Mr. Mukherjee. The party might have seen no point in countering a Congress candidate with a nominee from its own ranks as it did in 2007 by fielding Bhairon Singh Shekhawat against Pratibha Patil. But, surely, the alternative need not have been the adoption of somebody else’s candidate, that too at the eleventh hour. Had the party thrown its weight behind Mr. Sangma — who is certainly a worthy candidate — as soon as Jayalalithaa and Naveen Patnaik had announced their support for him, a real contest might well have been on the cards. Today, the principal Opposition party has become a tail of the regional parties it needs to mobilise if it is to stand a chance of coming to power in 2014. Of course, the BJP’s loss is Mr. Sangma’s gain. He still has no chance of winning, but at least he will have the satisfaction of putting up a reasonable fight.