Cover Story: Maneuver In Presidential Poll

president-house

TRS sending fillers, YSR Congress lending support of its 16,996 votes, BJP is currently running ahead of the Congress’ bid to pitch opposition candidate in coming presidential polls

By Asit Manohar

President Pranab Mukherjee is going to complete his five year tenure this July and hence both BJP and Congress party are busy rallying support for its candidates to walk the lawns of the Raisina Hill as both camps fall short of the majority. This could happen because of the 13 percent neutral votes into the Electoral College of the Presidential Polls comprise by AIADMK, TRS, BJD, INLD, YSRC and AAP. Out of these six, support from either of AIADMK, TRS or BJP would be enough for the NDA candidate to sail through the polls. However, for the Congress party they need support of all these six parties to reach to the level where NDA already stand. Some political commentators have express that Congress party is trying to test its metal into this presidential polls because it would work as mini preparation for the 2019 Lok Sabha Polls. On BJP, they are of the opinion that both Modi and Amit Shah want to break the last aura left with the Congress that it still has the ability to stop BJP. Once, the BJP candidate sails through this Presidential Polls, it would give a message to the regional parties that Congress is no more in the position to give them the shelter they used to receive during 1996 to 2004 ( read Atal-Advani period).

A rout in election after election at the hands of BJP has forced the grand old Left front and regional parties to come together and think along the lines of putting up a united candidate. Indian National Congress president Sonia Gandhi is back in business. She has held meetings with Nitish Kumar, Sharad Pawar, Sharad Yadav, leaders of the Left Front and other regional parties. She is planning to meet West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinmool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee too. Ironically, before giving her nod to meet with Sonia Gandhi, Mamata met with Odisha CM and BJD chief Navin Patnaik, which made her meeting with Congress president more interesting.

In a bid to rally the opposition parties Congress leader Digvijaya Singh said, “All progressive forces now must wage a united fight against BJP and RSS on basis of issues and ideology. It is important not to convert political fight into a mere clash of personalities as BJP and NDA regime are trying in order to divert focus from their policies and administrative failures.” This sums up aptly the rationale behind such unity. Opposition politics has moved on and is now centered on “anti-BJP” and not “anti-Congressism”. This fact will bring cheer to BJP though.

The opposition now is trying to make a strategic shift on how to tackle the surge of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP. Instead of attacking Modi personally, which is actually backfiring, the opposition wants to attack the government on policy and programmes presenting an alternative vision to the country. Taking forward this strategy, Janata Dal leader Sharad Yadav met former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and is drumming support for co-opting citizen initiatives as proposed by the Yashwant Sinha-led group.

BJP has not yet finalized on a candidate. Names of Mohan Bhagwat, Sushma Swaraj, Sumitra Mahajan, Najma Heptullah, Venkaiah Naidu etc, are doing the rounds. People may say LK Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi are out of contention after the Babri Masjid judgment but in dayafter view, it has made their candidature stronger as it would help Modi-Shah to project themselves as Messiah of the Hindus. But, being known to Modi-Shah style of work, they may prop up a surprise candidate.

The opposition, on the other hand, could field Dr Karan Singh, Sharad Pawar, Sharad Yadav or Mulayam Singh. Even Mayawati would not be adverse to this idea in the author’s opinion. Acceptability of the name across these parties will be the key for nomination and the most difficult part. Gopalkrishna Gandhi is also emerging as consensus candidate for the united opposition.

VOTE CALCULUS

BJP is 20,390 votes short of a majority to win the election. Even if it is able to garner the entire votes of Independents across the country, it will be still short by around 5,000 votes. Additionally, the possibility of the entire set of Independents voting for BJP is difficult, as the party would need to negotiate with each person individually which is a daunting task.

This brings the role of the three neutral parties (AIADMK, TRS and BJD) to the forefront. Combined together they have 1.19 lakh votes between them. The AIADMK in Tamil Nadu has 59,000, BJD in Odisha 36,500, and TRS in Telangana has 23,200. All these parties have supported many bills of the NDA government in the last three years. In these three states, the principal opposition party till now has been Congress (Odisha and Telangana) and DMK (UPA partner from Tamil Nadu), which prevented these parties from siding with Congress.

Things, however, have changed in these three states in the recent months. In Odisha, BJP emerged as the second largest party in the panchayat elections held in February 2017 growing at the expense of both BJD and Congress. While its tally jumped eight times (36 to 306), its vote share nearly doubled from 18 percent to 33 percent.

The BJP held its national executive meet in Bhubaneshwar in April, clearly making its intent clear that it aims to wrest power from Naveen Patnaik in 2019. The BJD has noticed BJP’s surge in Odisha and realised that its citadel is under threat. A weakened Congress and natural anti-incumbency which develops with long tenure governments (17 years) may help a BJP surge in the state.

All this has made Naveen Patnaik jittery. The anti-BJP front constituent Mamata Banerjee has already met him and emphasized the need to remain united to thwart BJP’s plans. The dilemma in front of the BJD is that if it supports a BJP candidate, it risks losing some vote share to the party in the state. On the other hand, his support for a BJP candidate cannot be ruled out as BJD has been a constituent of NDA earlier and may still back BJP in case a consensus emerges. The BJD alone (of the three neutral parties) can help an NDA candidate sail through the election.

As for Telangana, Amit Shah has put the state on his radar to expand in the South. This has complicated matters for TRS which has provided issue-based support to NDA in the Parliament. A weakened Congress means BJP along with TDP may emerge as its key opposition in 2019. The fact that the polls to both Telangana and Odisha assemblies will happen simultaneously with the General Election to Lok Sabha in 2019, at the peak of Modi wave, is also a factor that they will consider. By voting for a BJP candidate, both parties will risk conceding space to BJP in their backyard. TRS has send fillers to lend its support to BJP candidate in the presidential polls but an official announcement from KCR is yet to come. Interestingly, support from TRS alone can also help a BJP candidate win the presidential elections as it has 23,200 votes.

The AIADMK issue, however, is a bit complex. The party is divided between OPS and Sasikala camps, each vying to gain control. The merger talks between the two camps have got stuck. OPS has higher support among MPs in the Parliament while Palaniswami has highest support amongst MLAs as of now. Ideologically, the AIADMK has been close to BJP and also an NDA constituent in the past. The BJP needs the support of only one-third of the AIADMK MPs and MLAs (20,000 votes) to go past the halfway mark. Whether or not AIADMK will support BJP depends on how the merger talks shape up between the two factions in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, BJP has pinned its hope on OPS camp for extra votes.

As we see above, BJP needs the support of just one of these three parties to ensure its candidate becomes the next President of India. Any of these three neutral parties abstain from voting that will also help BJP candidate win, provided there is no crack in the NDA citadel.

NDA SUPPORT BASE

The Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) rallied around the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), stating that the regional party could support the coalition’s candidate if it helped Telangana. “We have been with the NDA whenever it benefited Telangana. We are not with the NDA if it is against Telangana,” the TRS leader in the Lok Sabha, AP Jitender Reddy said. With Opposition trying to put up a common nominee for the poll, Reddy’s comments would boost the NDA’s chances of installing its candidate in Rashtrapati Bhavan.

Reddy said the TRS would take a final decision on the matter at an appropriate time after assessing whether the NDA needed its support. The presidential election has to be held before 24 July when President Pranab Mukherjee’s term ends.

TRS is one of the six political parties (AIADMK, BJD, YSRCP, AAP and INLD) who cumulatively hold a 13 percent vote-share in the Presidential Electoral College and has the potential to make the contest interesting. TRS, before announcing their support for NDA, maintained equidistance from BJP as well as Congress in their domestic state-level political considerations.

Congress needs the support of all these six regional parties to even out the contest between ruling and Opposition. The opposition’s 35.47 percent votes combined with the 13.06 percent vote share of these six parties give them a total of 48.53 percent — just short of the NDA’s vote share of 48.64 percent in the presidential contest.

OPPOSITION GAME PLAN

Opposition parties, after holding discussions in the past few days, appear to have considered a few names, including former governor Gopalkrishna Gandhi, former speaker Meira Kumar, NCP chief Sharad Pawar and JDU leader Sharad Yadav, to pick a common candidate for the upcoming presidential election. Though, decision of the candidate yet to be finalized, the process of evolving a consensus is gaining momentum. Congress president Sonia Gandhi has initiated the process of bringing Opposition together for the election slated in July in a bid to evolve a consensus on a candidate.

This also being seen as a precursor to the possibility of opposition parties coming together to take on the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

Gopalkrishna Gandhi, grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, who was secretary to the President when R Venkataraman held the post, is also said to have a good equation with West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, when he was governor there. He himself has acknowledged that he has been approached.

Sonia has over the past few days met Nationalist Congress Party leader Sharad Pawar, National Conference’s Working President Omar Abdullah, Janata Dal-United leader and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and Communist Party of India-Marxist chief Sitaram Yechury, CPI leader D Raja, and spoken to Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav and Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Lalu Prasad Yadav.

Sonia Gandhi, who was admitted to the Sir Ganga Ram hospital due to food poisoning on 9 May, is believed to have spoken to Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee from the hospital. The two are likely to meet and discuss the strategy for united opposition nominee for the presidential polls. She will also meet DMK leader MK Stalin and Bahujan Samaj Party supremo and former Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawati in the coming days.

“Sonia Gandhiji is trying to build a consensus on the presidential election over phone, and even by meeting leaders of the opposition parties. But we are waiting for the BJP to announce their candidate. Let them first declare their candidate,” JD(U) leader KC Tyagi said.

Asked if consensus has been arrived at on any candidate, Tyagi said, “A consensus has not been yet reached on any of the names. Let the notification be issued. But we have done our homework already. We will all contest the elections together.”

Asked about the names of probable candidates doing the rounds, Tyagi said, “Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a good name, but no consensus has been reached on that. Meira Kumar is also a good name, Sharad Yadav is also a good name.”

“No consultations have taken place formally on the names together. Till the BJP announces its candidate or till the election date is announced, all this is just preliminary talk,” he added.

A senior Left leader told that the united opposition will wait for the BJP to announce their candidate. He also said that they will announce the name in the end. “Announcing the name may land the candidate in a legal entanglement, like BJP patriarch LK Advani. Immediately after his name started doing the rounds for presidential candidature, the Supreme Court revived the conspiracy charge against him on the Babri Masjid demolition,” said the leader.

Janata Dal-Secular leader Danish Ali said they will first wait for the government to announce its candidate and only then will they take a stand on it.

“If the government proposes a consensus candidate it will be good for democracy. The government should consult the opposition parties before taking any decision. If we don’t agree with the government’s proposal and if the candidate is not suitable for Rashtrapati Bhavan, if he comes from the right-wing ideology, then the opposition will be forced to field a candidate in that scenario… And JD-S will stand by the opposition parties,” Danish Ali told.

However, Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik-led Biju Janata Dal and Shiv Sena, which have been non-committal on the issue so far, will play a crucial role in the presidential elections. Sources in the BJD said that if Jharkhand Governor Draupadi Murmu’s name is proposed by the ruling establishment, the party may have difficulty in opposing her. Murmu’s name has been doing the rounds for the top post. She is a tribal politician, who hails from Odisha.

Opposition parties are also trying to garner support from the Shiv Sena and some of the its leaders are in talks with Shiv Sena leaders. A Congress leader said that if Sharad Pawar becomes the opposition candidate, the Shiv Sena may extend support to him. In another unity move, DMK leader Kanimozhi met Sonia Gandhi last week and invited her for her father and DMK chief M Karunanidhi’s 94th birthday celebrations in Chennai.

Karunanidhi’s birthday on 3 June is likely to be attended by leaders from several opposition parties, including Nitish Kumar, Lalu Prasad, Sitaram Yechury, D Raja, National Conference leader Farooq Abdullah and Sharad Pawar. Kerala Chief Minister and CPM leader Pinarayi Vijayan may also attend.

SHAH-MODI PLAN

For the thrice-banned RSS, it will be the ultimate validation when one of their own occupies Rashtrapati Bhavan, a point of immense satisfaction that will follow the appointment of Yogi Adityanath as Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh.

The presidential election must be held before July 25 this year.

A senior RSS functionary explains, “For us to have one of our own in Rashtrapati Bhavan is like being twice born, it will make us the real Dwij (Brahmin) of the political system in India. From being shunned and treated as pariahs, we now occupy the apex. All those gangs of leftists and liberals who formed the erstwhile elite have had to give in as we now occupy centre-stage.”

This peculiar persecution complex plays in to the very DNA of the RSS which is still hurting at having been banned thrice, once after the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. And the Sangh is now in full antagonistic mode and will brook no accommodation or consensus when it comes to the coveted job of President. This also plays to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP President Amit Shah’s attitude of not yielding any quarter to the opposition.

This has two implications: there will be a definite contest for the President’s office; and the RSS and BJP have no interest in a candidate supported by all parties to demonstrate a rare unity in polity, as hoped by a small fraction of the BJP which reportedly includes leaders like Rajnath Singh and Sushma Swaraj, who, some say, is reportedly in the running herself.

The opposition, having heard from informal back channels that the Sangh will not concede an inch, is also preparing to square off for a “blockbuster Mahabharata-type contest” as a senior Congress leader wryly put it. For non-NDA parties, who have allotted the front role for the presidential contest to Sonia Gandhi and the Congress, this is a dress rehearsal of opposition unity and now-in-discussion ‘grand alliance’ ahead of next general election in 2019.

Sonia Gandhi has reached out parties including the left, Trinamool Congress’s Mamata Banerjee, Janata Dal United’s Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad Yadav She has also spoken on the phone with BSP supremo Mayawati; there are plans for all non-NDA leaders plan to meet later this month Delhi and also later for unity talks in Chennai for DMK supremo M Karunanidhi’s 94th birthday on June 3.

Feelers have also reportedly been sent to Navin Patnaik, the Odisha Chief Minister, via a very senior Congress leader with whom he shares Doon School as an alma mater. Patnaik is on alert with Amit Shah having made it clear that he has immediate plans to build the BJP into dominance in Odisha ahead of its next election in 2019.

A senior Congress leader on the condition of anonymity revealed, “We have to agree on a creditable candidate, a person who is widely reckoned to be erudite and respected across the spectrum. A cipher like Pratibha Patil will not do.”

The opposition is looking at civil society and academia to find a candidate. Currently, Gopal Krishna Gandhi, former Governor of West Bengal and grandson of Mahatma Gandhi is being talked about but, this could all change after the meetings that are coming up. Interestingly, several opposition leaders currently talking to each other about ‘suitable’ candidates would like nothing better than to be the nominee; Sharad Yadav of the Janata Dal United is reportedly among them.

There are conflicting reports of Sharad Pawar’s level of interest. After Modi hailed him in November as his ‘political guru’, the Pawar faction was jubilant about his prospects, but the RSS in Nagpur is not convinced. So Pawar, displaying flexibility, is also now reportedly in talks with the opposition.

Leading the Sangh charge is the redoubtable Shah, fresh off his UP success. In fact, the UP numbers will give critical mass to Project President for the RSS. The BJP and its allies are barely 20,000 votes short, according to most reports. They need the support of one major opposition party to cross the majority mark. Shah is working hard to ensure this among a group of six political parties that include the AIADMK and K Chandrasekhar Rao’s TRS which governs Telangana.

Modi’s penchant for springing surprises like demonetization is well known, so the NDA candidate could be a complete outlier to take the opposition by surprise. But, like in UP, the RSS would like to stamp its authority on the nominee. With national elections due in two years, the President’s job acquires huge importance. Both Modi and Shah would want a candidate that they are comfortable with and who could rule in favor of the government in crucial matters. Sources in the know of the current discussion say it has to be a person that Modi can trust completely.

This would have ruled out LK Advani, even if the Babri Masjid case had not gone against him recently, as both the RSS and Modi have a trust deficit with him. The third President of the BJP, Dr Murli Manohar Joshi, who also vacated his Varanasi constituency for Modi, had a better shot at making it to a shortlist at least but has, like Advani, hit a setback in the Babri case where they will now be tried for criminal conspiracy in the destruction of the 16th Century mosque in Ayodhya.

While the Sangh preference is a closely-guarded secret, a host of BJP politicians are reportedly making a big play for the job. These include Venkiah Naidu, Urban Development Minister, who compared Modi to an ‘avatar of god’ and said, “India was blessed to have him”, Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan, Draupadi Murmu, currently Governor of Jharkhand. Hailing from a tribal family in Odisha, Murmu has had a career spanning two decades. If she is the NDA candidate, it would be the first time that a tribal occupies the office and would also ensure the support of Odisha Chief Minister Patnaik. Another candidate is Thawar Chand Gehlot, Minister for Social Justice and Empowerment. Sources say RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat was never interested in the job and his name was mentioned to embarrass him by some frenemies like the Shiv Sena till he squelched the speculation himself.

SHIV SENA TANGLE

The opposition is also exploring the chinks in NDA’s armor, especially the irritant Shiv Sena. Uddhav Thackeray has declared that Shiv Sena could support Sharad Pawar if he contests the elections, for the sake of Maratha pride. Shiv Sena had supported UPA’s presidential candidate Pratibha Patil in 2007 in similar conditions.

Shiv Sena has 25,893 votes, and BJP needs to ensure that it keeps them in good humor else it will upset its calculations severely increasing the deficit from the current 20,390 votes to 46,000 votes. In that case, it will need the support of both Independents and one either of TRS or BJD. Since, BJD may not lend support to BJP candidate, YSR Congress lending support of its 16996 votes in to the BJP in presidential nominee holds importance because with YSR Congress and some OPS faction MPs in Parliament may nullify the last minute ditch by the Shiv Sena.

To conclude, despite a tight contests, BJP is ahead in the presidential race and its candidate is most certainly to win in my opinion. What this does for the opposition is that it gives them a platform to test an anti-BJP front before 2019. What should be its structure, who will be the leader/convener, how many parties may join, can this concept work, what are the hiccups, unique selling points etc. BJP is finally set to have its first president from amongst its family.

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