Two septuagenarian leaders representing India’s underprivileged Dalit community are likely to fight for the presidential election on July 17.
The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) surprise decision to choose a Dalit, 71-year-old Ram Nath Kovind, as its presidential candidate on Monday was clearly intended to disarm the opposition. However it was no masterstroke.
Opposition parties, including pro-Dalit groups, are likely to object to Kovind’s past links with the hardline Hindu Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) organization and instead back a secular Dalit candidate from the Congress party when they meet on June 22.
Reports indicate Congress chief Sonia Gandhi may pick 72-year-old Meira Kumar to foil the BJP’s efforts attempt to choose a “consensus” candidate.
Congress, West Bengal’s Trinamool Congress party and the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM) expressed their reservations soon after BJP announced Kovind.
Janata Dal (JD-U) leader Nitish Kumar, who is Chief Minister of Bihar, said he was personally happy over Kovind’s nomination, he did not confirm his party’s support. Pro-poor and pro-Dalit opposition parties may well therefore back a Dalit from their own ranks.
Opposition parties, which recently suffered a humiliating defeat in the assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, hope to hit back at the BJP in this presidential poll. Wary of this, BJP last week sent three top leaders to the homes of opposition leaders to discuss finding a consensus candidate.
Their overtures were met with a lack of enthusiasm, with Sonia Gandhi and CPM’s Sitaram Yechury declaring they could support a candidate who had not been identified. Congress and CPM now say the BJP did not consult them.
Kovind is the son of a poor farmer from Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh (UP). He represents the downtrodden and marginalized community, whom he has served well. He is a man of integrity – unassuming, non-controversial and balanced in his views.
Modi surprised people with an out-of-box choice and a strong message that his party stands with Dalits. This may serve as one of BJP’s poll planks during its campaign for the 2019 elections
He is well versed in law and the constitution. He twice served as a member of Rajya Sabha, the upper house of India’s Parliament, before becoming the governor of Bihar. On Monday, he quit that post and met with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Meira Kumar, the likely Congresss presidential nominee, has served as a diplomat and as Speaker in Parliament. She is also a lawyer with knowledge of the constitution. She is the daughter of the late veteran political leader Jagjivan Ram.
In a head-to-head, Kovind would likely emerge as the winner as the BJP will expect to win the support of small regional parties.
On Tuesday, Mulayam Singh Yadav, leader of Samajwadi Party which fought against the BJP in the UP assembly elections, also extended his support to Kovind.
The BJP’s coalition partner Shiv Sena was initially upset for not having been consulted, the party agreed late on Tuesday to back Kovind.
Rival parties were hoping RSS would arm-twist BJP to nominate its chief Mohan Bhawat for the post of president. This could have helped them to launch a tirade against the BJP’s “pro-Hindu” agenda.
However Modi surprised them with an out-of-box choice and a strong message that his party stands with Dalits. This may serve as one of BJP’s poll planks during its campaign for the 2019 elections.
Taken aback by Kovind’s nomination, the opposition parties have branded it a public relations exercise.
With Kovind set to become India’s next president, will anti-BJP groups rise above party politics and back him? Opposition parties are likely to find an answer for this during their June 22 meeting.