Springing a surprise that is likely to disrupt Opposition unity, the BJP announced Monday that Ram Nath Kovind, Governor of Bihar, “a party veteran born in a poor Dalit family who went the hard way up”, will be the ruling NDA’s presidential candidate.
With this move, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah, who took the final decision, have also reached out to the large Dalit vote base for which there are many claimants. Their choice has created confusion in the Opposition ranks where many are going to find it difficult to oppose Kovind. BJP ally LJP’s chief and Union Minister Ram Vilas Paswan was quick in stating that all parties should back Kovind: “Sab ko samarthan karna chahiye, jo nahi karenge toh maana jayega ki woh Dalit virodhi hain (Everyone should support. Those who do not will be considered anti-Dalit).”
Kovind, who flew to New Delhi from Patna after the announcement, told NDTV: “It’s a duty, let’s take it as such.”
The TRS, TDP, YSR Congress and BJD announced their support to Kovind. Seeking support, Modi spoke to BJD chief and Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, TDP leader and Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu, and TRS chief and Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao.
Patnaik said Kovind is an eminent lawyer belonging to the Scheduled Caste community. “The office of the President of India is above political consideration and Biju Janata Dal wants to keep it above politics,” he said.
Naidu was quoted having told the Prime Minister: “You have chosen a right candidate for the top post. An intellectual with high values belonging to the Dalit community is very apt in all respects for the President’s post.”
Addressing the media after a meeting of the BJP parliamentary board, Shah announced Kovind as their choice for President. He said Modi had spoken to Congress president Sonia Gandhi and former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Senior BJP leaders also spoke to leaders of other Opposition parties.
A two-term Rajya Sabha MP from Uttar Pradesh and former president of the BJP’s Dalit Morcha who went on to become Bihar Governor, 71-year-old Kovind is likely to file his nomination papers on June 23.
With the BJP and its allies in a comfortable position to get their candidate elected, Kovind’s election to the top post is almost certain.
“Hope every party will have a consensus on Ram Nath Kovind, who was born in a poor Dalit family and who went the hard way up,” Shah said. The Prime Minister expressed confidence that Kovind “will make an exceptional President and continue to be a strong voice for the poor, downtrodden and marginalised.”
In his tweets, Modi said Kovind is “a farmer’s son, comes from a humble background. He devoted his life to public service and worked for poor and marginalised” and “with his illustrious background in the legal arena, Shri Kovind’s knowledge and understanding of the Constitution will benefit the nation”. Shah said the BJP parliamentary board had taken into consideration the “feedback” the party got from discussions between BJP leaders, appointed by him to try and evolve consensus, and the other parties.
“Kovindji has been a senior leader of BJP for long time. He is from Kanpur Dehat… practised both in High Court and Supreme Court, had been a government counsel, a Rajya Sabha MP for 12 years and was the chief of BJP’s Scheduled Caste Morcha. He has been Governor of Bihar for the last three years. He always wanted to work for the poor and backward,” Shah said.
Union Minister M Venkaiah Naidu, one of the three ministers in the BJP committee for talks on the next President, recalled that “in the past, Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy was elected President unanimously and there was an understanding among all major parties in the election of Dr A P J Abdul Kalam as well. BJP reached out to Opposition parties in the past during the election of Dr Kalam and again did so this time as well.”
BJP’s ally Shiv Sena, which has gone against the BJP decision in past presidential elections, has not committed its support yet. Shah was on the phone with Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray — they had a meeting Sunday in Mumbai — and sought his party’s votes for the BJP choice. Sena leaders are expected to meet to take a decision.