Hours after the BJP named Bihar Governor Ram Nath Kovind, a Dalit leader, as the NDA nominee for the presidential elections, the first signs of division in the Opposition camp emerged though sources said that parties were bracing for a contest.
The JD(U) and BSP indicated they were not opposed to Kovind’s candidature, but stopped short of committing support to him. The Congress, Left and Trinamool Congress signalled that a contest appeared to be on the cards.
In Patna, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar called on Kovind at Raj Bhavan and later told reporters: “In my capacity as the Bihar Chief Minister, it is a matter of happiness that our Governor has been declared as the candidate for the next President of India.”
He refused to commit any support to the NDA choice: “It will not be fair to answer this question as discussion will soon take place among Opposition leaders on the issue of a candidate for the President’s post.” He said he had conveyed his feelings on the development to RJD chief Lalu Prasad and Congress president Sonia Gandhi.
In Lucknow, BSP chief Mayawati said: “The BSP’s stand cannot be negative towards a Dalit nominee for the post of President. Our stand will be positive provided the Opposition does not field any Dalit for the top post.” It could be difficult for parties like the DMK, who often chant the social justice mantra, to oppose a Dalit. The Samajwadi Party, sources in the Opposition said, too appeared undecided since Kovind is from Uttar Pradesh.
Sources said the chances of the Opposition fielding former Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar were bright. Former Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde too could be considered as the Maharasthra leader’s candidature could draw the support of NDA constituent Shiv Sena. “How can you rule out a Dalit Opposition candidate… it could be Meira Kumar,” a senior Opposition leader told The Indian Express.
The first indication that the Opposition would spurn the consensus appeal from the BJP came from Congress which decried the ruling party for “unilaterally” announcing its candidate. The Opposition parties will meet on Thursday to decide their strategy. Sonia Gandhi will chair the meeting. The Opposition will have to field a Dalit face as a counter to ensure that they stay united.
Leader of Opposition in Rajya Sabha Ghulam Nabi Azad said the party would reserve its comments but said the BJP’s decision was unilateral. “Yes, the Government contacted some opposition leaders including Congress president and Manmohan Singhji over phone. But they were told the name after the decision was taken. This we did not expect,” Azad said.
“We are not going to comment on the merits and demerits of the candidate… We expected that before they take the final decision on the candidate, they will come back to us, other political parties. I think each Opposition party was given to understand that before the final decision will be taken, they will be taken into confidence and the names will be discussed but that has not happened. That is the sweet will of the NDA government,” Azad said.
CPM general secretary Sitaram Yechury said except for Neelam Sanjiva Reddy’s election post-Emergency, there has always been a contest. “It is not any character certificate to the person being put up. We had nothing against APJ Abdul Kalam, but we still put up Captain Lakshmi Sehgal… It is a political election. So we think the Opposition should put up a joint candidate… the Opposition is meeting on June 22 and we will put up a candidate… that would be our effort,” he told The Indian Express.
Yechury said Kovind was a spokesperson of the BJP. “He had directly opposed the Ranganath Misra committee’s recommendations. And he had called Muslims and Christians as alien to India. So he has got that background also,” Yechury said. In Kolkata, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said: “There are other big Dalit leaders in the country. Just because he (Kovind) was a leader of the BJP’s Dalit Morcha, they have nominated him.”
“The office of President is a key post. Someone of the stature of Pranab Mukherjee or even Sushma Swaraj or Advaniji may have been made the candidate. In order to support someone, we must know the person. The candidate should be someone who would be beneficial for the country,” she said.
“I am not for a moment saying that Bihar Governor Ram Nath Kovind is unfit for the post of President. I have spoken to two or three Opposition leaders, they too are surprised. There are other big Dalit leaders in the country,” she said.
CPI general secretary S Sudhakar Reddy said there would be a contest. On Kovind, he said: “His background is RSS… He was president of the BJP Dalit morcha… anybody from the RSS, we will fight… so from the Opposition, we have decided to contest,” he told The Indian Express.
The CPI had told Union Ministers M Venkaiah Naidu and Rajnath Singh — when they came to meet them — that the ruling party should not field a “hardcore leader” as its candidate.
“Why should not we field a candidate… why should there not be a contest,” senior CPI leader D Raja said. He said it is a “battle of ideology and battle for safeguarding the Constitution and secular democracy”.