While the Congress is keen on putting up a candidate to force a contest, it is also eager to avert a division in the Opposition ranks which could be seen as its failure.
A day after the BJP sprang a surprise by naming Bihar Governor Ram Nath Kovind, a Dalit, as the NDA’s presidential choice, Opposition parties struggled to remain united and find a Dalit name, “who has both intellectual heft and political acceptance” to counter the ruling coalition’s move.
A desperate Congress also moved to persuade Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar who stunned the Opposition Monday by indicating his reluctance to stand in the way of Kovind’s elevation to the high office. The Congress rushed Leader of Opposition in Rajya Sabha Ghulam Nabi Azad to Patna for a possible meeting with Kumar.
Sources said Kumar conveyed to Congress president Sonia Gandhi, CPM’s Sitaram Yechury and RJD chief Lalu Prasad that he had “good personal equations” with Kovind. Ahmed Patel, political secretary to the Congress president, also spoke to Kumar.
Both JD(U) and NCP have called party meetings Wednesday to discuss their next course of action. The JD(U) core committee will meet in Patna while the NCP meeting will be held in New Delhi. A SP leader told an Opposition leader that his party was in “double mind”. DMK’s Kanimozhi, sources said, flagged to JD(U) leader K C Tyagi the “difficulty” in opposing the Dalit candidate fielded by the NDA.
Asked about the JD(U)’s position on the issue, Tyagi said, “Even after June 22 (when Opposition parties meet to take a decision on fielding a common nominee), we will still remain with the Opposition but we may differ on some issue. We are a pioneer of Opposition unity and will remain part of Opposition unity. Not much should be read into this matter.”
He said Nitish Kumar had backed Pranab Mukherjee’s candidature in 2012 even when he was part of the NDA and the BJP was uncomfortable with that decision. He recalled that leaders like Atal Bihari Vajpayee, L K Advani and Swatantra Party leader Minoo Masani had backed the candidature of veteran Communist leader Hiren Mukerjee in the 1982 presidential poll, though the nomination was rejected due to technical reasons.
On Kovind’s RSS background, Tyagi said that “though from RSS, he is not hardcore RSS” and maintained that there was a difference.
BSP chief Mayawati, meanwhile, too told Yechury that she will have no option but back Kovind if the Opposition does not put up a Dalit candidate. Through the day, Opposition leaders including Yechury engaged in confabulations, but there was not much forward movement.
Sources said SP’s Akhilesh Yadav has told Opposition leaders that he will back the Opposition but father Mulayam Singh could chart a different course. SP leader Naresh Agrawal, meanwhile, spoke to Tyagi. “We are ourselves confused,” an SP leader told The Indian Express when he was asked about its next course of action.
Some Opposition leaders have proposed that a Dalit from Maharashtra should be fielded as the Opposition candidate given the fact that the Shiv Sena, a constituent of the NDA, has not come out in support of Kovind. The Opposition, according to sources, has expanded the search for a credible Dalit face. Sources said apart from former Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar, former Union Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde and Babasaheb Ambedkar’s grandson Prakash Ambedkar, some other names are also now on the table.
These include that of economist and former vice chancellor of Mumbai University Bhalchandra Mungekar and former chairman of the UGC and the ICSSR, Professor Sukhadeo Thorat. Activist Paul Divakar, general secretary of National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights, is another name being tossed up. The name of senior CPI leader D Raja too has been suggested by some leaders.
While the Congress is keen on putting up a candidate to force a contest, it is also eager to avert a division in the Opposition ranks which could be seen as its failure. The Left and some other parties, sources said, are already upset that the Congress did not push the rest of the parties to announce a candidate before the BJP did, denying the Opposition an opportunity to set the narrative.