Till Thursday evening, the Indian Presidential election, slated for July 17, seemed to be a one-horse race. A united ruling alliance headed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had put up Ram Nath Kovind, a strong candidate, while the fractured Opposition was groping in the dark in search of a credible consensus candidate.
But come Thursday evening, the euphoria of having caught the Opposition napping began to fade.
At a meeting held in the parliament library, the 17-party Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) came up with a credible consensus candidate who could give Kovind a run for his money.
The candidate is Meira Kumar, a low caste “Dalit” like Kovind, who is also educated and experienced in public affairs like him. If Kovind was a Supreme Court counsel, Kumar was in the Indian Foreign Service. She too was a Member of Parliament (but for five terms as against Kovind’s two), and had been a parliament Speaker from 2009 and 2014. Both are in their early seventies, with much professional and political experience.
Above all, Kumar, is the daughter of freedom fighter and former Minister Babu Jagjivan Ram, who, after the demise of the Dalit icon, Dr.B.R.Ambedkar, was the tallest leader of the Dalits in India.
Much of the progress achieved by the Dalits (previously dubbed as “untouchable” and discriminated in every way), was due to the influence of Jagjivan Ram.
Dalits today have 15% reservation in government jobs, state-funded educational institutions, and in elected bodies.
Announcing Kumar’s candidature, the Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha (Upper House), Ghulam Nabi Azad, said: “She is a crusader for social justice. The opposition couldn’t have picked a better candidate.”
Marxist leader Sitaram Yechuri said: “The choice of Meira Kumar was unanimous. We have appealed to others in the opposition to support her.”
The opposition had considered four names besides Meira Kumar. They were Sushil Kumar Shinde, Bhalchandra Mungekar and Prakash Ambedkar –all belonging to the Dalit caste group.
But the Congress threw its weight behind Kumar – a loyal Congress worker.
And being a woman, she had the backing of Congress party’s lady chief, Sonia Gandhi, who in an earlier Presidential election too had backed a woman candidate, Pratibha Patil.
The Congress-led opposition is saying that the Presidential battle is for “social justice” though both Kumar and Kovind are from the downtrodden Dalit caste.
The opposition accuses the Hindu nationalist BJP of brushing issues of the downtrodden under the carpet for the sake Hindu consolidation and Indian nationalism.
The leader of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) Lalu Prasad Yadav, is touting the Kovind-Kumar contest as an “ideological” war.
“This is not a contest based on the merits of the candidates. It’s an ideological battle,” Yadav said.
The BJP-led coalition has increased its support base in the electoral college from 48.9% to 63.1% with many parties outside the coalition having pledged support to Kovind.
But now that Kumar is in the fray, the BJP can no longer dream of a walk over.
The electoral college comprises the elected members of parliament and the provincial legislatures.
(– P.K.Balachandran is a senior Colombo-based journalist currently writing on the countries of South Asia –)