The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on Monday flummoxed the Opposition by putting up current Bihar Governor Ram Nath Kovind — a 71-year-old Dalit leader from Uttar Pradesh — as presidential candidate.
BJP President Amit Shah announced Kovind’s name after the party’s parliamentary board meeting in the morning. Prime Minister Narendra Modi telephoned Congress President Sonia Gandhi and his predecessor Manmohan Singh, as well as Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, to inform them about the choice. Patnaik said his party, Biju Janata Dal (BJD), would support Kovind.
The choice of a Dalit candidate was a well thought-out, said observers. This could help the BJP consolidate its Dalit support base ahead of the Lok Sabha election slated for 2019. It could also mollify Dalits who are on the protest path in Uttar Pradesh (UP) and elsewhere.
This move could also rupture the “grand alliance” between the Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party and the Congress in UP. The BJP, with ally Apna Dal, had won 73 of 80 Lok Sabha seats in the state in the 2014 elections. The ruling party needs to repeat the performance to cross the majority mark in the House.
Kovind, a lawyer, is not a firebrand Hindutva leader, but has worked with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its affiliates, especially those working among Dalits. He joined the BJP in 1991 and served in the Rajya Sabha for two terms between 1994 and 2006. His election is unlikely to face a stiff challenge, as the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) has 48.6 per cent of votes in the electoral college.
The Opposition said it would put up a contestant. However, there was no consensus on who that would be. A decision would be taken in a meeting on Thursday.
Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) chief Mayawati said her party would support Kovind unless the Opposition put up a Dalit candidate. Janata Dal (United), or JD(U) — in power in Bihar — said it considered the state’s governor a good candidate. But, they did not want to break Opposition ranks. Both BSP and JD(U) have a significant Dalit base.
Congress sources said the party might put up former Lok Sabha speaker Meira Kumar — daughter of Dalit leader and former deputy prime minister Jagjivan Ram. BJD and Aam Aadmi Party are reluctant to support a Congress candidate.
Leaders of the Trinamool Congress, the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) were of the opinion that the Opposition should field a Dalit candidate. In the Thursday meeting, they might propose the name of B R Ambedkar’s grandson Prakash Ambedkar, a politician and Dalit activist in his own right.
This could help the Opposition in two ways. First, the BJP’s ally in Maharashtra, the Shiv Sena, is likely to vote for Prakash Ambedkar, a Marathi. Mayawati might also be convinced to vote for B R Ambedkar’s grandson.
Opposition leaders are also miffed at the BJP leaders for not having taken them into confidence. Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad and CPI (M) chief Sitaram Yechury said this was not in the “spirit of consensus” the BJP had promised.
They are planning to highlight recent killing of Dalits in UP and Haryana, and also remind people of Kovind’s stand, as BJP’s spokesperson in 2010, against the Ranganath Misra commission, which had proposed a 15 per cent reservation in government jobs for religious and linguistic minorities.
Information and Broadcasting Minister Venkaiah Naidu said Kovind hailed from the weaker sections of society and was conversant with issues of social justice.