Opposition’s chance of putting up tough fight in 2019 depends on how effectively it counters BJP’s strategy of snaring Dalits. Meira Kumar may rise Opposition’s PM candidate
By Asit Manohar
Even though opposition candidate for the presidential polls Meira Kumar lost by a huge margin to Ram Nath Kovind, this could be the beginning of former Lok Sabha speaker’s story. From the recent defeat of the presidential polls could rise the Opposition’s Prime Ministerial candidate for the coming 2019 elections.
Meira Kumar is the best thing to have happened to the Opposition since VP Singh won a by-election in Allahabad three decades ago. If the Opposition carries forward its bonhomie, buries the egos of its prima donnas, Kumar could be a readymade candidate to take on incumbent Narendra Modi in 2019.
Kumar’s defeat in presidential polls was almost certain. Her rival, NDA candidate Ram Nath Kovind, had nearly 70 percent votes. Though the Opposition had asked members of the electoral college to listen to their “conscience” before casting their vote, Kumar was unlikely to break the ruling coalition’s unity. With around 30 percent votes, she was likely to lose by a huge margin and she did lost by the huge margin.
BLESSING IN DISGUISE
Meira Kumar’s candidature as joint opposition candidate for the race to Raisina Hill has served two purposes. One, it has brought about a semblance of unity within the Opposition parties. Secondly, it has raised Kumar’s profile and given her a pan-India identity. Both these developments could be the starting points for the Opposition’s strategy in the next general elections.
The next general elections may be a few months away. But its contours are becoming visible. It is almost certain that upper caste voters would back Modi. The PM’s urbane, business-friendly appeal and the image of ‘Hindu Hriday Samrat’ has created a solid vote bank among urban voters and rural upper castes. This voter is expected to stay firmly behind Modi and the BJP in 2019.
The BJP has been trying to expand this base with its Dalit outreach, a strategy that has led to Kovind’s candidature for the president’s post. The Opposition’s only chance of putting up a tough fight in 2019 depends on how effectively it is able to counter the BJP’s strategy of snaring Dalits.
Kumar can be the ideal candidate to stop the BJP. An erudite scholar with the credentials and experience required to become India’s prime minister, she can’t be straitjacketed as a token dalit. Her clean record, impeccable credentials and non-controversial past make her stand out apart from the crowd of politicians of her age. In addition, she is from Bihar, a state that has the potential for changing the complexion of parliamentary elections with its 40 seats.
Bihar is important because it is the only state that has shown the desire and ability to resist the Modi wave. In the 2015 Assembly elections, its voters proved that given an alternative they were ready to look beyond Modi and the BJP. Propping up Kumar as the opposition’s prime ministerial candidate could galvanise the Bihari voter again, in the process leaving Nitish Kumar the Hobson’s choice of either supporting her or facing the consequences of opposing the first Dalit woman from the state with a realistic chance of becoming India’s PM.
Kumar’s potential as a putative PM candidate is, of course, incumbent on several factors. First, the Congress will have to rise above its love for the dynasty, address Rahul Gandhi’s prime ministerial ambitions — assuming he has them — and come to terms with the fact that it needs to act as a pivot of opposition, a facilitator of unity in 2019, instead of a party that believes it is entitled to lead the opposition. Only in this role, where its hands are folded in humility, its hubris is set aside, can the Congress have a realistic chance of ensuring the opposition puts up a joint challenger to Modi in 2019.
The other important variable is the index of opposition unity. The schisms within the opposition became apparent during the process for selecting its presidential candidate, proving yet again how difficult it is bring them together. Yet, a beginning was made. As a senior Congress leader told the Indian Express, in three years, this was the first time the opposition came together as a united force. This says a lot about the way ahead. This nascent unity was further consolidated by the return of JD (U) in the opposition camp for the vice-president’s election.
But, the key question now is, can the opposition continue to stay united till 2019? Will it be able to handle the contradictions in the politics of the Trinamool Congress and the Left, the ambitions of Mulayam Singh and Mayawati and leaders of the 18 parties that have united for the vice-president’s election?
If they manage to hold on to the common agenda of defeating Modi, remain committed to what Sonia Gandhi has described as an ideological battle, Meira Kumar may just emerge as the surprise challenger to the BJP.