In a political masterstroke which is likely to disrupt Opposition unity and contribute in some measure to its strategy for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP announced Monday that Ram Nath Kovind, governor of Bihar, “a party veteran born in a poor Dalit family who went the hard way up” will be the ruling NDA’s presidential candidate.
With this move, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah, who took the final decision, have not only thrown down the gauntlet for a Dalit support base, for which there are many claimants, but will also split the Opposition where many will find it difficult to explain reasons to oppose Kovind.
BJP ally LJP’s chief and Union Minister Ram Vilas Paswan was quick in stating that all parties should back Kovind: “Sab ko samarthan karna chahiye, jo nahi karenge to maana jayega ki woh Dalit virodhi hain (Everyone should support. Those who do not will be considered anti-Dalit).”
The TRS and YSR Congress announced their support to Kovind. Modi spoke to TRS chief and Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao, seeking his party’s support for Kovind.
Addressing the media after an almost two-hour long meeting of the BJP parliamentary board, Shah announced Kovind as their choice for President. He said Modi had spoken to Congress president Sonia Gandhi and former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Senior BJP leaders also spoke to leaders of other Opposition parties.
A two-term Rajya Sabha MP from Uttar Pradesh and former president of the BJP’s Dalit Morcha who went on to become Bihar governor, 71-year-old Kovind is likely to file his nomination papers on June 23.
With the BJP and its allies in a comfortable position to get their presidential candidate elected, Kovind’s election to the top post is almost certain.
Underlining the “poor and Dalit” background of the party candidate, Shah said: “Hope every party will have a consensus on Ram Nath Kovind, who was born in a poor Dalit family and who went the hard way up.”
The Prime Minister, who is learnt to have made the choice, expressed confidence that Kovind “will make an exceptional President and continue to be a strong voice for the poor, downtrodden and marginalised.” In his tweets, Modi said Kovind is “a farmer’s son, comes from a humble background. He devoted his life to public service and worked for poor and marginalised” and “with his illustrious background in the legal arena, Shri Kovind’s knowledge and understanding of the Constitution will benefit the nation”.
Shah said the BJP parliamentary board had taken into consideration the “feedback” the party got from discussions between BJP leaders, appointed by him to try and evolve consensus, and the parties.
“Kovindji has been a senior leader of BJP for long time. He is from Kanpur Dehat… practised both in High Court and Supreme Court, had been a government counsel, a Rajya Sabha MP for 12 years and was the chief of BJP’s Scheduled Caste Morcha. He has been Governor of Bihar for the last three years. He always wanted to work for the poor and backward,” Shah said.
Union Minister M Venkaiah Naidu, one of the three ministers in the BJP committee for talks on a consensus, recalled that “in the past, Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy was elected President unanimously and there was an understanding among all the major parties in the election of Dr A P J Abdul Kalam as well. BJP reached out to Opposition parties in the past during the time of election of Dr Kalam and again did so this time as well.”
BJP’s ally Shiv Sena, which has gone against the BJP decision in the past presidential elections, has not committed its support yet. Shah was on the telephone with Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray — they had a meeting Sunday in Mumbai — and sought his party’s votes for the BJP choice. Sena leaders are expected to meet to discuss the BJP proposal and take a decision.
Ever since the BJP came to power in 2014, it has been taking several initiatives to reach out to Dalits, a significant support base in all elections. The party launched a number of Dalit outreach programmes and its spectacular victory in Uttar Pradesh was testimony that it had succeeded in influencing Dalit voters, BJP leaders said.