After Nitish Kumar sprung a surprise on opposition parties by deserting them at the last minute to back NDA Presidential nominee Ram Nath Kovind, NCP supremo Sharad Pawar is learnt to have kept them on tenterhooks in the hours before the parties were to meet to pick their candidate on Thursday.
The Maharasthra leader was reluctant to even attend the Opposition meeting, sparking fears that he would throw a wrench in their works, sources said.
Pawar is learnt to have told Opposition leaders that he was in talks with the Centre on the issue of farmers’ stir in Maharashtra, and urged them to postpone the meeting by a day. Sensing danger, Congress leaders Ghulam Nabi Azad and Ahmed Patel rushed to Pawar’s residence, sources said.
With Pawar not coming around, sources in Congress said, a call was made to CPM general secretary Sitaram Yechury, who joined them to persuade the former Union minister.
Pawar, sources said, was finally convinced after he was told that the Opposition candidate could be announced on Friday. At the meeting, when Pawar suggested that the announcement be postponed by a day, almost all leaders present there opposed the proposal. Opposition leaders read his reluctance as a ploy to buy time.
“He may have thought that some more parties may desert the Opposition camp…we don’t know…. He had something in mind,” a senior leader said.
Even Nitish’s decision had surprised many in the Opposition. The Bihar chief minister had apparently told a senior Opposition leader as early as on June 3 that he is ready to back Gopalkrishna Gandhi’s candidature when they met at an event in Chennai to mark DMK patriarch M Karunanidhi’s birthday. Even a day before BJP announced Kovind’s name, Nitish is learnt to have spoken with the same leader and had sounded equally firm.
Opposition leaders are divided on whether Nitish would have walked away had they announced a joint candidate first.
Some are also pointing fingers at the Congress for delaying the decision. CPI general secretary S Sudhakar Reddy is learnt to have said in the meeting that the Opposition should have met earlier and firmed up its candidate. “The Congress underestimated the manipulative capacity of BJP,” a senior opposition leader said. “The party should have been ready with two or three candidates and convinced others.”
The leader asserted that the BJP “deliberately leaked some names — like that of Jharkhand Governor Draupadi Murmu — and forced us to wait”.
Even the Trinamool Congress is learnt to have been in favour of delaying the decision. “Mamata Banerjee was in favour of Pranab Mukherjee… She perhaps thought that the Opposition will be left red-faced if the government gave him a second term… She had a fair argument,” a senior leader said.
A Left leader said they were sure that Mukherjee would not get a second term. “The RSS has never come this close to (having one of its leaders in) Rashtrapati Bhavan…. Why would it waste such a chance,” the leader asked.
Congress leaders contended there was no guarantee Nitish Kumar would not have walked away even if the Opposition had announced its candidate earlier. “What if BJP had announced Kovind’s candidature after we named Gopalkrishna Gandhi? The BSP and SP too would have walked out and backed a Dalit candidate… The opposition would have been in bigger disarray,” a Congress leader said in defence of the delayed decision.
Asked whether the Opposition could have set the narrative had it announced its candidate earlier, a senior Congress leader said, “May be…but BJP would have then said that the Opposition did not wait, and that we should have taken them into confidence.”