Presidential election

Symbolic contest

Print edition : July 21, 2017

Ram Nath Kovind, the NDA’s candidate for the 13th President, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on his way to Parliament House to file his nomination on June 23. Photo: Kamal Narang

Meira Kumar, the opposition’s candidate, with Congress president Sonia Gandhi, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Sharad Pawar of the NCP, Sitaram Yechury of the CPI(M) and other leaders before filing her nomination on June 28. Photo: Shanker Chakravarty

The opposition fails to put up a show of unity ahead of the presidential election, while the BJP attempts to foil the criticism about its upper-caste preferences by choosing a Dalit candidate.

WITH the surprising selection of Bihar Governor Ram Nath Kovind as the National Democratic Alliance’s (NDA) nominee for the presidential election, the stage is set for a fresh round of identity politics on a larger-than-usual canvas. The opposition camp, taken aback by the choice, scrambled to find its own Dalit nominee and settled on Meira Kumar, former Lok Sabha Speaker. The NDA candidate clearly enjoys a definite advantage over the opposition nominee, having over 60 per cent of the votes in his favour.

Asked why she was contesting a “losing battle”, Meira Kumar said it was a matter of ideology for her: “Because I believe in the ideology of the freedom of the press, an inclusive society, abolition of the caste system, transparency, and removal of poverty.”

She said she was pained to see the discourse on the presidential election focussing on the two candidates’ caste just because it was “one Dalit against another Dalit”. She said this reflected how society thought and functioned. “In the previous presidential elections, when so-called upper-caste candidates contested, the debate was always about their capabilities, achievements and performance. Unfortunately, when there are two Dalits in the fray, everything else has become secondary. I feel it is time we destroyed the caste system and buried it deep inside the ground,” she said.

Meira Kumar will start her campaign from Sabarmati as “Sabarmati gives tremendous strength to fight against injustice”. She said she had written to all the members of the electoral college, urging them to listen to their “inner voice of conscience” because in this battle of ideologies they had an incredible moment to create history.

Party politics

In a symbolic contest like this, what has now gripped the imagination is how party politics plays out in the days to come, especially in the politically crucial State of Bihar where fault lines in the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD)-Janata Dal (United) alliance have become more pronounced after the announcement. Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, who was one of the first to initiate talk of opposition unity to counter the BJP, was the first to jump ship when Kovind’s name was announced. Kovind had conducted himself honourably as the Governor of Bihar and he had no reason to oppose him, Nitish Kumar said.

The opposition, which still claims to have 17 parties in its fold, was left with no choice but to fall into the trap laid by the BJP. With Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) supremo Mayawati also declaring that unless the opposition announced a better Dalit candidate she would not be averse to supporting Kovind, the Congress and its allies had no choice but to propose Meira Kumar, who definitely has a better public profile than Kovind. A former Indian Foreign Service officer, she is the daughter of Jagjivan Ram, one of India’s best-known Dalit leaders. If the Congress had announced her candidature before the NDA named its candidate, the opposition could have mounted a substantial challenge to the NDA and perhaps also kept the JD(U) in its fold.

As things stand today, any talk of opposition unity to counter the rising challenge of fundamentalist forces does not sound credible. D. Raja of the Communist Party of India (CPI) said: “In view of the rise of right-wing forces, it had become necessary for the opposition parties to stand up to the challenge thrown by them. We are only trying to tell the people that this is an ideological war now and we will oppose the fundamentalist forces to the best of our strength. It is necessary to fight them and pre-empt their effort to push India towards becoming a Hindu Rashtra.” According to him, Nitish Kumar might have his personal reasons to support Kovind but this did not mean he would side with the NDA in the larger political battle. “That we will have to see,” he said.

But the fact remains that the war of words between RJD and JD(U) leaders has only intensified after Nitish Kumar’s decision to support Kovind. Lalu Prasad Yadav has advised Nitish Kumar to rethink his decision, which he called a “historic blunder”, and said that “in an ideological battle personal choices should not become the decisive factor”. Nitish Kumar, however, has not changed his mind.

Opposition discomfiture

The discomfiture produced in the opposition by Nitish Kumar’s decision is quite apparent. Though the Congress is upset at the way things have unfolded, it sees the contest as an ideological battle. Senior party leader Manish Tiwari said that since this was an ideological battle, Nitish Kumar should rethink his position and support Meira Kumar. He added that this was “about the idea of India, whether you want a bigoted or a pluralistic India”. He was not too worried about the bad blood being created between the alliance partners: “When there is a churning at the ideological level and people have to take positions, such things are normal.”

Political observers feel that the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duo zeroed in on Kovind in order to prevent a combined ideological onslaught by the opposition. His background makes him immune to the sort of barbs the opposition throws at BJP leaders. Though he has occupied senior positions in the party and has been its Dalit Morcha president and also national spokesman for a short while, he has kept a low profile and low visibility and has never been involved in any controversy. Besides, though he has been close to the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), which he describes as “vichar parivar” (thought family), he has never been an active member of the Sangh.

To top it, he comes from an extremely humble background, belongs to the marginalised Koli caste, and is known to have worked among disadvantaged sections of society. He has been involved with providing care and support to leprosy patients in Haridwar, has built hostels for their children, and so on. Since he is a lawyer by profession, he has good knowledge of the Constitution and is known to be articulate. Also, as Bihar Governor, he maintained good relations with all parties and avoided controversies. These, indeed, were the reasons that Nitish Kumar cited to explain his support.

The Congress hopes to make capital out of this background, in order to emphasise that his profile does not instil the confidence that he can protect the “idea of India”.

Statements that Kovind made as a national spokesman of the BJP in 2010 have surfaced. On one occasion he was quoted as saying that “Islam and Christianity are alien to the idea of India”. This was in reply to a question whether the Rangnath Mishra Commission report, which had recommended 15 per cent reservation for religious and linguistic minorities, should be implemented. Like all other BJP leaders at that time, including Modi, who was then the Chief Minister of Gujarat, Kovind said the report should be dumped because it was against the Constitution. Statements such as this are bound to be used by the opposition during campaigning to emphasise that Kovind will not be able to uphold the idea of India.

Manish Tiwari said: “Can he stand up to Amit Shah and Narendra Modi when it comes to protecting the idea of India? In the sort of environment we are witnessing today and the unrest that is visible everywhere, we need a personality that can instil confidence among people that he can protect the Constitution. Kovind does not give us this confidence and that is why we are against his candidature.”

D. Raja had a similar view: “We need to have a strong personality in the Rashtrapati Bhavan, one that can inspire confidence that he/she will not allow India to become a Hindu Rashtra. Kovind does not give us this confidence.”

Kovind’s assertion that once he became Governor he ceased to be a member of any political party is not cutting much ice with the opposition parties. They hope that Meira Kumar’s call for heeding “the voice of conscience” will appeal to voters across parties.

But the call for heeding the “voice of conscience” is not being as aggressively sounded as it should. Badrinarayan, a Dalit scholar from Allahabad University, said: “Kovind has already started off on his campaign, whereas Meira Kumar is still to begin. Even if the result is pre-decided, if the Congress party manages to campaign aggressively and articulate its idea properly, that may set the stage for a larger re-grouping of the political parties around the next Lok Sabha election. But so far, the Congress has not given the indication of that.”

According to him, it would be better to treat the present presidential election as one event and not portray it as one big mobilisation against the BJP in the next Lok Sabha election because “politics today has become very pragmatic and 2019 is a long way off”. Indeed, even if arch rivals like the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) and the BSP and the Trinamool Congress and the Left are on the same page for this election, it is difficult to imagine them on the same platform during the Lok Sabha election. Factors operating at the time of general elections are totally different. It would be a mistake to assume that the position taken by various parties now will hold good at that time too.

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