(Photo: The Quint/Lijumol Joseph)

Race to Rashtrapati Bhavan: Can Congress Fight a Losing Battle?

  • Opposition leaders have either openly come out against Kovind, or merely congratulated him without extending support
  • Modi’s move is clearly aimed at consolidating support among Dalits
  • Kovind would be the first president from Uttar Pradesh
  • Can Congress oppose a caste that is its vote bank, but support an RSS Swayamsevak?
  • Can another Dalit candidate from Congress unite a broken opposition?

Narendra Modi has thrown down the gauntlet by picking a low-profile, non-controversial Dalit from the RSS-BJP stable, Ram Nath Kovind, as his nominee for the next President of India.

The Opposition, now, is left with two options: accept Modi’s choice in the name of consensus, or nominate a candidate to contest Kovind — even if it means fighting a losing battle.

The 18-party opposition front will take a final call on 22 June, but there are already signs that Modi may have succeeded in driving a wedge in the mahagathbandhan that was supposed to take shape over the presidential poll.

Opposition’s Divided Yet United Views

While Sitaram Yechury of the CPI(M), Mayawati of the BSP, and Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamool Congress have come out guns blazing to oppose Kovind, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and Mulayam Singh’s SP seem to be playing a waiting game.

Two factors are weighing on their minds, which Modi probably banked on when he zeroed in on Kovind.

One is that Kovind is currently the governor of Bihar and enjoys a good relationship with Nitish. In fact, Nitish was first off the block to call on Kovind and congratulate him. He later remarked that he was happy that the NDA had picked the governor of his state as its presidential candidate.

However, he did add the caveat there was no decision yet on the issue of supporting him.

The second is that Kovind hails from Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh. It meant little to Mayawati who focused more on his RSS background but SP leader Naresh Agarwal was at pains to express his happiness that someone from UP could be the next President of India.

Kovind would be the first occupant of Rashtrapati Bhavan from a state which has given 8 of India’s 14 prime ministers but no presidents.

Credential Conundrum

The mixed reactions from its would-be allies have put the Congress in a quandary. The party is also weighing the political implications of the choice of a Dalit albeit with saffron credentials.

Can it oppose someone from a caste it depends on for votes? As the same time, can it support a swayamsewak

The Congress has been circumspect, as it usually is when it is confused. Its leaders will now go into a huddle to weigh all the pros and cons before it takes a stand. Bereft of ideological and political understanding, the Congress is waffling on what position to take.

With a host of smaller regional parties like TRS, TDP, BJD, and AIADMK pledging support to Kovind, the BJP has the numbers for its nominee to sail through. In fact, it can even afford to ignore the Shiv Sena if the party chooses to be obstructionist. The Sena’s numbers are not really necessary anymore.

But the presidential poll is not just about getting the nominee of the government elected.

Historically, it has always reflected the political currents of the times with the ruling dispensation using the election as a show of strength and to send a message to its constituency.

In this case, Modi hopes to achieve two things by installing Kovind in the Rashtrapati Bhavan.

The Looming 2019 Polls

Kovind’s nomination is clearly a part of the Dalit outreach program of the BJP in the run-up to the 2019 election. Modi hopes to consolidate and enlarge his support base among Dalits through this move.

This is particularly important in view of the upcoming elections in Gujarat where Dalits were thrashed by gau-rakshaks in Una. It is even more vital in UP which has been scorched by Thakur-Dalit clashes in Saharanpur.

The BJP and RSS have been trying to bring Dalits into the larger Hindu fold for a long time. It’s an ongoing project but it hasn’t made enough headway for the BJP to replace parties like the Congress and BSP as the natural choice of the community.

Ironically, history tells us that symbolism doesn’t necessarily yield the desired political results.

In 1997, the United Front government supported by the Congress chose a Dalit, KR Narayanan, as president. But in the Lok Sabha elections that followed in 1998, the BJP emerged the victor and went on to form the government.

The second imperative for Modi is a more immediate one, which is to try and break up the nascent anti-Modi front that opposition parties are trying to put together after the BJP’s stunning victory in the recent UP assembly polls.

The presidential election was being seen as the first show of strength by a united opposition as a build up to 2019.

One Dalit Candidate Against Another?

The opposition meet on 22 June will indicate whether Modi’s ploy has been successful. Much depends on the choice of candidate by the opposition parties and whether all 18 will agree on one person, given the ego clashes and political differences.

With Modi picking a Dalit, it is more than likely that the opposition too will be forced to choose someone from the same caste grouping.

But can a Meira Kumar or a Sushil Kumar Shinde, whose names are cropping up as probables, unite a disparate opposition?

The outcome is pre-determined. Kovind is a clear winner. But in time-honoured tradition, there is likely to be a contest to draw the battle lines between the government and the opposition.

There have been only two unanimous elections for the president, one in 1950 when Rajendra Prasad was elected, and another in 1977 when Sanjeeva Reddy won.

The outcome of this one may throw up interesting new alignments if the opposition chooses its nominee with care.

(The writer is a Delhi-based senior journalist. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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