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Presidential polls: How BJP swung the odds its way by choosing Ram Nath Kovind

LiveMint logoLiveMint 21-06-2017 Anuja

New Delhi/Mumbai: Once again, through adroit politics, this time by fielding a Dalit candidate, former Bihar governor Ram Nath Kovind, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has swung the odds its way in the presidential polls.

While regional parties like Biju Janata Dal (BJD), Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS), Telugu Desam Party (TDP), Yuvajana Shramika Rythu Congress Party (YSRCP) as well as troublesome ally, Shiv Sena, have been key in managing the strategy, the development would offer some political lessons for the Congress party, leading the charge of the opposition.

Even as the choice of candidate has led to opposition leaders like Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) chief Mayawati speak up in Kovind’s favour, the BJP ensured it kept in touch with the opposition parties, particularly top Congress leaders.

Soon after the announcement of Kovind’s name by BJP president Amit Shah on Monday, TRS, TDP and YSRCP were quick to extend their support. Later in the day, following a phone call by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, BJD chief and Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik supported Kovind’s candidature, saying “office of the president of India is above political consideration”.

In a way an important breakthrough, at least symbolically, came after Sena officially offered its support on late Tuesday evening. The BJP’s political victory in getting all the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) allies on board to back Kovind marks a recall of the 2002 consensus on the late A.P.J. Abdul Kalam’s candidature when the Shiv Sena had also backed the missile man for the president’s office. By backing Kovind this time, the Shiv Sena has gone back to the NDA fold on selection of presidential nominee after 15 years. In 2007 and 2012, the Shiv Sena had embarrassed the BJP by backing the candidature of Pratibha Patil and Pranab Mukherjee, respectively.

The NDA, as of now, stands comfortably to get Kovind elected to the high office. In the electoral college, the BJP alone has a vote share of 40% and Sena, BJD, TRS, YSRCP together have 12% putting Kovind safely beyond the 51% mark.

All eyes would now be on the opposition parties’ key meet on Thursday, with most leaders saying that they would take a final call post that meeting. The Congress, which has been keen on a contest, is still weighing its options on how to go ahead with the issue even as it is seemingly worried by the overtures of Mayawati and Nitish Kumar towards NDA’s candidate.

It was Congress president Sonia Gandhi who took a lead in bringing the opposition parties together on the presidential election issue. Last month, Gandhi held a luncheon meeting with opposition leaders over the issue and decided to form a sub-committee to look into candidate selection.

Meanwhile, the Shiv Sena’s about-turn on Kovind in less that 24 hours is being seen in Maharashtra as the regional party’s yet another surrender to the BJP. On Monday, Sena president Uddhav Thackeray had accused the BJP of indulging in “vote bank politics” and put Sena’s support to Kovind on hold. But the next day, Thackeray said the Sena had decided to back Kovind as “he was a good person and would do well for the country”.

While a Sena leader told Mint on Monday that the party had little room to negotiate with the BJP about the latter’s presidential poll nominee since the BJP had the requisite numbers, Kovind’s name in particular had made the Sena position “untenable”. “There are obvious norms of political decorum and correctness that we have to follow beyond our differences with the BJP. On day one it was safe to position ourselves as being sceptical of the BJP’s choice but after discovering that there was absolutely nothing in Kovind’s candidature that we could find fault with, there was hardly any room to protest. In a way this was our Kalam moment when opposing him would have been a harakiri,” said the Sena leader, requesting anonymity.

A Maharashtra BJP leader said the Sena was conscious of the caste dynamics in Maharashtra politics when it decided to back Kovind. “Ambedkar was from Maharashtra and Dalit constituency in the state is sensitive to political happenings at the national level. Despite its public pronouncements about not being a vote-bank party, Shiv Sena knows caste politics does play a role,” said the BJP leader, on the condition of anonymity.

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