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Despite the numbers in the electoral college being heavily stacked in favour of the BJP-led NDA Alliance candidate Ram Nath Kovind in the upcoming Presidential election of India, the Opposition parties have decided to field their own candidate Meira Kumar, making the election a Dalit vs Dalit contest.

Only a few months back, Prime Minister Narendra Modi did not have the required numbers to be confident of putting up a candidate who would truly be the first BJP President of India. But victories in recent State Assembly polls, particularly in the biggest state, Uttar Pradesh, have boosted the BJP-led alliance’s chance of getting closer to their goal. They just had to cajole a handful of regional parties to their side obtain the majority required.

India has a very peculiar and complex electoral college system in the election of its President. The members of Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha who together number 776 form part of the electoral college together with the members of the State Assemblies (MLAs). Nominated members of Rajya Sabha do not form part of this electoral college. While each MP has 708 votes, the votes of the MLAs depend on the population of the state and the strength of its assembly. Just to give a couple of examples: while an MLA of the biggest state Uttar Pradesh has 208 votes, an MLA of Sikkim, the smallest state, has to be satisfied with only 7; an MLA from West Bengal has 151 votes against 26 for one from Tripura.

It’s a normal practice for the party in power to talk to opposition parties in the run up to the Presidential election to come up with a consensus candidate. Accordingly, the major party in the ruling alliance, BJP sent its emissaries to various opposition parties to discuss the matter. But, when the opposition parties asked for the name of the candidate the ruling alliance had in mind, no answer was forthcoming. The opposition parties were also in discussion with each other to choose a consensus candidate of their own. But, the ruling alliance kept their card close to their chest and earlier this week the BJP supremo Amity Shah declared that Ram Nath Kovind, Governor of Bihar, has been chosen as their candidate. This took the opposition by surprise as they expected the ruling alliance to consult with them on their chosen candidate. This was a very shrewd move by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah. Seventeen opposition parties then met on Thursday to nominate their candidate and declared former Speaker of Lok Sabha, Meira Kumar as their candidate to fight the election.

In the meantime, various opposition parties, not part of the BJP-led ruling alliance declared their support for Ram Nath Kovind. These included Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United), TRS from Telengana, the fighting factions of AIADMK of Tamil Nadu and Biju Patnaik’s BJD of Odhisa, boosting the support for Mr Kovind to well over 60% of the electoral college.

Regional politics has played a great part in these parties coming to the support of NDA alliance except for Nitish Kumar’s JD(U) which is in alliance with Lalu Yadav’s RJD in the Bihar state government. Lalu Yadav still thinks that he can change Nitish Kumar’s mind although that seems very unlikely. TRS has provided issue-based support to NDA in the Parliament, but with Amit Shah eyeing Telengana as one of the states to expand in the south, a combined BJP-TDP could pose a threat to TRS. Amit Shah also wants a stronger footing in Odisha. However, BJD had been a constituent of NDA in the past, but it risks losing votes in the next elections for its support to the NDA candidate. From an ideological point of view, AIADMK had been seen to be close to BJP and was also a part of NDA at one time.

One sticking point was garnering support of BJP’s ally in Maharashtra, Shiv Sena, which has in the past voted against the NDA candidate. In 2007, the party voted for Congress-backed candidate Pratibha Patil, who later became the first woman President of India. But, this time round, Amit Shah, the astute manipulator that he is, was successful in getting Uddhav Thackeray by his side and get Shiv Sena’s support for Mr Kovind.

It must be said that both the candidates have impressive credentials to their credit. Ram Nath Kovind has been a two-time Rajya Sabha MP and has a very remarkable record as Governor of Bihar. He is also an eminent lawyer, but the criticism labelled against him, is that, despite coming from a humble background from a dalit village in Kanpur, his political affiliation is with BJP where he led its Dalit Morcha. Even though, he is described as a ‘moderate Hindu’, he is a firm believer of RSS ideology of Hindutva. The question raised is: will he be able to uphold the post of the highest office in the state without a secular credential?

The opposition candidate, Meira Kumar, is a dalit from Bihar, who has been a five-time LokSabha MP and the first female Speaker of the LokSabha. A lawyer, as well, she had a chequered career as a diplomat and also has a political background. She is the daughter of Jagjivan Ram, a former Deputy Prime Minister and who served as a successful Defence Minister, playing a significant role during the 1965 India-Pakistan war.

It is not uncommon for the opposition to put up a candidate knowing very well that the ruling party or alliance has got all the numbers to get their candidate through. As recently as in the last Presidential election in 2012, the opposition put up S A Sangma as its candidate against Pranab Mukherjee and was defeated heavily. The only instance of a consensus candidate in the last fifty years goes as far back as in 1977 when Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy was elected unopposed.

The opposition argues that the post of President of India is of utmost importance as the occupant of Rashtrapatri Bhaban has to be a stout defender of the republic and its constitutional values and traditions. They say that this is not just a battle of numbers but ‘a battle of ideologies’.

Voting takes place on 17 July and the results will be announced on 20 July.

The tenure of Pranab Mukherjee expires on 25 July 2017 and whoever succeeds him to be the 14th President of India, two things are certain: one – the next resident of Rashtrapati Bhaban in Delhi will be the second dalit President of India, after K R Narayanan, and two – more importantly, casteismis a reality and still plays a pivotal role in the socio-political arena of India and this is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.

Uday Sankar Dasis a senior journalist.

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