The Opposition was a divided house on the eve of a meeting of its leaders to take a call on whether they should field a joint candidate against NDA presidential nominee Ram Nath Kovind. Parties that form the socialist bloc within the Opposition were not on the same page while the Congress, Left and Trinamool Congress were keen on a contest.
After Nitish Kumar’s JD(U) and Naveen Patnaik’s BJD decided to back Kovind’s candidature, the Janata Dal (S) and INLD indicated as much. The SP and RJD, however, appeared to be in favour of a contest for the top post.
Ahead of Thursday’s meeting, former Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar emerged as the frontrunner to take on Kovind. She met Congress president Sonia Gandhi late Wednesday evening.
Ever since the BJP named Kovind, a Dalit, for President, the Congress and CPM have been trying to come up with a Dalit candidate as a counter. In fact, BSP chief Mayawati forced their hand by announcing that she will have no option but to back Kovind if the Opposition did not field a Dalit candidate.
Ghulam Nabi Azad, Leader of Opposition in Rajya Sabha, spoke to several Opposition leaders and asked them to attend the meeting Thursday. Azad conveyed Gandhi’s message that the Congress is determined to fight.
Sources said Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee spoke to Gandhi from The Netherlands and conveyed to her that she was agreeable to Meira Kumar’s candidature. The Left and Trinamool Congress had earlier indicated that they were in favour of Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson Gopalkrishna Gandhi.
The choice for the Opposition appeared to have narrowed down to four names — Meira Kumar, Congress veteran from Maharashtra Sushil Kumar Shinde, economist and former vice chancellor of Mumbai university Bhalchandra Mungekar and B R Ambedkar’s grandson Prakash Ambedkar.
Sources said Ahmed Patel, political secretary to the Congress president, spoke to former Prime Minister H D Deve Gowda on Tuesday and Ghulam Nabi Azad made a similar phone call to Deve Gowda Wednesday. Both urged him to attend the Opposition meeting but he excused himself, saying he would be at a function organised by the Congress in Karnataka.
Deve Gowda asked JD(S) national spokesperson Danish Ali to attend the meeting. Asked about his party stand, Ali told The Indian Express: “We have not yet decided anything. We will make our stand clear tomorrow at the Opposition meeting. If we have to fight (the NDA candidate), there should be someone of stature, reliability and integrity.”
A source in the JD(S), however, conceded it has become “difficult” for the party to oppose Kovind’s candidature because he is a Dalit nominee. The Congress, the JD (S) source pointed out, had not backed the idea of fielding an Opposition candidate in 2002 against NDA presidential nominee A P J Abdul Kalam.
“Only Left and JD(S) had put up freedom fighter Lakshmi Sehgal as a candidate against Kalam. At that time, Congress found it difficult to oppose Kalam,” a JD (S) leader said.
Former Union Minister and RJD leader Jaiprakash Yadav declined to reveal his party stand on fielding an Opposition candidate, saying everything will be clear tomorrow at the Opposition meeting. Both RJD chief Lalu Prasad and Jaiprakash Yadav will be at the meeting.
A source in RJD, however, gave clear indication of the thinking in the party saying “there is no question of an ideological compromise”. At an earlier meeting, Lalu Prasad had backed the idea of an Opposition candidate.
INLD Lok Sabha MP Dushyant Chautala, grandson of Om Prakash Chautala, told The Indian Express that his party has called a meeting of its executive body on Friday, a day after the Opposition meeting, to discuss the presidential polls.
“We will see what kind of Opposition candidate is suggested at tomorrow’s meeting. Then we will decide at our party meeting on Friday… whether the Opposition candidate is such that we can back,” he said.
He also pointed out that the BJP is in a position to win the election. He cited the support it already has from other parties. Asked if it should be assumed that the INLD is getting ready to support the NDA pick, Chautala said: “I will not comment on that.” After a meeting between Union Minister M Venkaiah Naidu and Om Prakash Chautala, the BJP indicated that Chautala gave a “positive” response.
AN NCP meeting in the national capital to take a final call has been postponed as Sharad Pawar is still in Mumbai. The party will make its stand clear Thursday. “So far, nothing has been decided,” NCP general secretary Tariq Anwar said.
Naresh Agrawal from SP said every time elections are not fought just for wining but also to give a message. “Why do we fight in Parliament on issues? There are a number of things in which a message is given. A candidate was also put up when NDA had fielded Kalam. Was the election then fought to win polls,” he asked.
In Patna, JD(U) general secretary K C Tyagi said: “Kovind’s tenure as Bihar Governor has been without parallel. He has performed his duty in a non-partisan and dignified manner. The party has been unanimous in extending support to his candidature.” He, however, said it would have no impact on its Bihar alliance with the RJD and Congress. “When the Grand Alliance was formed, we had not discussed the presidential election. We are not attending the Opposition meeting on Thursday.”
RJD national spokesperson Manoj Kumar Jha told The Indian Express: “Since RJD has followed the ideals of secularism and socialism from its inception, we put forward such views in discussions with Opposition leaders. The party president has given hints on going with what 18 parties unanimously decide on Thursday.”
In Thiruvananthapuram, JD (U) Rajya Sabha member and Kerala unit president M P Veerendra Kumar said he would not vote for Kovind. The JD (U) in Kerala is part of the Congress-led United Democratic Front. The party has no legislator in the Kerala assembly.
“The state unit has no difference of opinion with the par’y’s national leadership. I have talked to party national president Nitish Kumar, who allowed me to vote for the candidate of my choice. The state unit was told to take an independent stand,’’ Veerendra Kumar said.