NEW DELHI: “No matter BJP has the majority, but #MeiraKumar is also a strong candidate; we will support her.” Ram Gopal Yadav’s comment on Twitter, expressing the Samajwadi Party’s support to the UPA candidate for the presidential elections, actually sums it all up for the polls, slated on July 17.
If Prime Minister Narendra Modi was credited for springing a surprise on Monday with the name of Ram Nath Kovind, stumping the Opposition’s unity efforts, Sonia Gandhi tried to match the move on Thursday.
Leading an informal 17-party bunch, she sought to turn what was to be just an ‘ideological’ contest for the top office on the Raisina Hills, a contest for contest’s sake, into a ‘Your Dalit vs My Dalit’ chess-game.
Meira Kumar, who holds the distinction of being the first woman Speaker of the Lok Sabha, not to mention her IFS and law background, is no token candidate. As a far more recognisable political face — five-time MP, once from Bijnor, UP, she could have easily paled the low-key Kovind’s candidature, but for the sheer numerical strength of the BJP/NDA camp. Had Kumar’s name been announced earlier, even a day before Kovind’s, it cannot be said how the contest would have played out, is how a senior Congress politician put it.
Meira Kumar’s candidature is not just a challenge thrown to the Prime Minister/NDA nominee Kovind, but also to Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, who broke ranks with the Opposition. In this battle of perceptions, Kovind now has to contest against a fellow Dalit and a woman leader of some repute. But Nitish Kumar may now have to seriously guard against his flock from cross-voting for ‘Bihar ki Beti’, legendary Babu Jagjivan Ram’s daughter. There’s no whip in the presidential elections.
By all indications, Kovind would be the winner but it’s Nitish Kumar and not Meira Kumar who may end up being the bigger loser, unless he’s preparing for a ‘ghar wapsi’ as his former ally and ex-deputy from the BJP, Sushil Modi, seemed to suggest. RJD chief Lalu Prasad Yadav comment — that “Nitish has committed a historic mistake” — was an indicator, though the Yadav chieftain did add that he would try persuade the Bihar CM to recant. Nitish’s party colleague K C Tyagi, however, said that unlike Mayawati, the JD(U) would not change its stance to support Meira Kumar.
But that Nitish has put his own political architecture, the Mahagathbandhan, and his coalition government with RJD and Congress under stress, not to talk of the Opposition unity call, is clear. He may have also walked out of the possibility of being projected against Modi as the united opposition’s prime ministerial candidate in 2019.
There were other embarrassing jitters in the Opposition camp in the run-up to the meeting. Congress’s Ghulam Nabi Azad and Ahmed Patel and CPI-M’s Sitaram Yechury had to rush to NCP chief Sharad Pawar’s residence to stop him from bolting from the UPA stable much like Nitish Kumar. The situation was saved thanks to the divide within the NCP camp. Pawar ended up proposing Meira Kumar’s name and the speculation that he has been won over by the NDA, with the timely concession to the demonetisation-hit cooperative banks, proved to be wrong.
At the end of the day, if the opposition lost a prominent member in Nitish, the NDA too could not get the support from its alliance partner PDP, which has declined to back Kovind. There may not be much surprise when the votes of the electoral college are counted on July 20, but that won’t make the contest any less colourful.