Kovind elevation almost certain
Ram Nath Kovind holds the card to trump Meira Kumar.
It is almost certain that the low-profile NDA presidential candidate Ram Nath Kovind will be the next tenant of Rashtrapati Bhavan. The incumbent Pranab Mukherjee retires on July 25 and the polls will take place on July 17. The election of Kovind will be historic if he wins, as it will be the first time an RSS man will be presiding over the Raisina Hills. Bihar governor Kovind, a low-profile Dalit leader, was a surprise candidate chosen by the BJP. However, the opposition has fielded the former Lok Sabha Speaker, Meira Kumar, another Dalit, as its presidential nominee, making it a Dalit versus Dalit contest wherein whoever wins, India will have a Dalit President.
The presidential polls, this time has several angles.
Politically, it is the ruling NDA versus the opposition UPA. Secondly, it has a caste card. This was played in 2007 polls too, when the Congress-led UPA pulled out Pratibha Patil Shekhawat as its choice, while the Vice President Bhairon Singh Shekhawat contested as an independent backed by the BJP. It was a Shekhawat versus Shekhawat dividing the Rajput votes. Thirdly, it is also an ideological fight as Meira Kumar has admitted. There is a gender aspect too. Although, the post of President was considered as ornamental, it still evokes public interest.
The Electoral College comprises all Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha MPs and the members of all Legislative Assemblies. There are 784 MPs and 4,114 MLAs. The vote values differ based on a formula. As of now, Kovind, set for a comfortable victory, may get 7 lakh votes of the total 10,98,903 votes of the Electoral College, while Meira Kumar may end up with four lakh votes despite the support of many regional parties like the RJD, SP, BSP, TMC and the CPI-M. The fence sitters like AAP, INLD and AIMIM and some independents have not yet opened their cards, and which way they tilt depend on the campaign strategy of Kovind and Meira Kumar. Interestingly, no one can surpass the record of Dr Rajendra Prasad, who got 99 per cent of the votes in 1957 while Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan got 98 per cent of the votes in 1962 polls. KR Narayanan won 95 per cent in 1997, and Abdul Kalam won 90 per cent of the votes in 2002.
The polls may turn out to be the closest electoral contest since 1969, when VV Giri was pitted against Neelam Sanjiva Reddy. That was the most noted contest when Indira Gandhi called for a conscience vote, securing victory for the independent candidate VV Giri against the official Congress candidate Sanjiva Reddy backed by the old guards.
Rajendra Prasad was the first President who became President without a contest in 1950 but he faced contests in 1952 and 1957. But those were the days when the Congress Party was held in high esteem, after it had won freedom for the country. The second time it happened was when Sanjiva Reddy was elected unopposed during the seventh presidential poll. The election, caused by the sudden death of serving President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, saw 37 candidates filing their nominations, of whom, 36 were disqualified. This led to Reddy's unopposed victory on July 21, 1977. All other times there have been contests and since 1997 there have been direct contests.
KR Narayanan became the first Dalit president of India, winning one of the most one sided presidential polls by defeating his opponent – former Chief Election Commissioner TN Seshan– by securing more than 90 per cent votes. Will Kovind be able to repeat this feat?
It depends upon the electoral management of rival candidates, but the contest is close. The effort of the BJP will be to break the opposition ranks, and if it succeeds, Kovind may get more votes than the NDA strength. The NDA has secured its flock and also added some more non-BJP parties like the AIADMK, BJD, TRS and YSR Congress.
The UPA is more vulnerable than the NDA, as cracks have already appeared in the UPA ranks. The Bihar chief minister, Nitish Kumar, has broken the opposition unity by supporting Kovind who had been the Bihar governor and with whom Nitish had good equations.
Secondly, Nitish has been showing nervousness about the continuation of the JD(U)-RJD-Congress coalition as he fears that the RJD supremo Lalu Prasad Yadav might pull out of the coalition any time. That is why he is leaning towards the BJP, which has secretly indicated that it would come to his rescue, in case of need. Nitish had earlier supported Modi's demonetisation while the opposition was critical of it. The Congress has chosen Meira Kumar as she is from Bihar and the daughter of the tall Dait leader, late Babu Jagjivan Ram. Nitish is embarrassed because he has chosen to go with the NDA but has claimed that the daughter of Bihar was chosen only to lose.
The NDA as well as the UPA is looking at the presidential contest as an indication of the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. The BJP is upbeat because it has been going from strength to strength in the past three years, winning most Assembly
elections except Bihar and Delhi. A good margin in the presidential polls will send a signal to the next two years Assembly polls to eight states. The presidential polls are a test for the opposition unity and it is to be seen whether it can remain united.
(IPA Service)(Views expressed are strictly personal.)