JD(U) sticks to backing Kovind, Lalu calls it a ‘historic’ mistake.
New Delhi: In a dalit versus dalit contest, former Lok Sabha Speaker and onetime diplomat Meira Kumar, daughter of the late Scheduled Caste icon Babu Jagjivan Ram, will take on the NDA’s Ram Nath Kovind in next month’s presidential election, a 17-party conglomerate of Opposition parties decided Thursday. The high point of the unfolding drama was Nationalist Congress Party supremo Sharad Pawar, who decided to play along with the Opposition bloc after dithering till the last moment and agreed only after much persuasion senior leaders.
“Seventeen Opposition parties have together decided to jointly field Meira Kumar,” Congress president Sonia Gandhi said after a one-and-a-half-hour-long meeting. Mrs Gandhi was flanked by former PM Manmohan Singh and Mr Pawar, who held several meetings within his party as well as with Congress troubleshooters Ghulam Nabi Azad and Ahmed Patel, as well as the CPI(M)’s Sitaram Yechury.
Sources said though Mr Pawar had agreed to be on the Opposition side in the presidential battle, he had wanted the decision to announce the name of the candidate to be deferred by at least a day. However, Mr Patel and Mr Azad rushed to his residence to convince him of going ahead and announcing the name on Thursday itself. The leaders also called in Mr Yechury to convince Mr Pawar and a luncheon meeting was held.
The NCP chief is understood to have told the leaders he wanted to wait for a farmers’ meeting with the Maharashtra government on Friday. The Congress and the Left, however, still smarting under JD(U) chief Nitish Kumar’s turnaround, convinced him to agree to announce the name on Thursday itself.
A top source said it was pointed out to Mr Pawar that the presidential polls were a litmus test for a larger alliance ahead of the 2019 general election. Interestingly, Mr Pawar as well as JD(U) chief Nitish Kumar were seen as contenders for the leadership of a “Mahagathbandhan” against the Narendra Modi-led BJP. Now, with Mr Kumar’s exit from the Opposition camp in the coming presidential polls, Mr Pawar’s position becomes stronger in such a possible alliance.
RJD chief Lalu Prasad Yadav, Mr Kumar’s ally in Bihar, said the JD(U) was committing a “historical” blunder and urged the Bihar CM to reconsider his decision on backing Mr Kovind. Earlier, Mrs Gandhi had also expressed a similar view. “We do hope that other parties also join us,” she said when asked about the JD(U) stand.
A JD(U) spokesman, however, said: “Our decision to support Kovind remains unchanged. It was a decision taken on merit after due application of mind and full consultation within the party... We will stick with his choice.”
Ms Kumar’s candidature will put pressure on the Bihar CM as she belongs to his state and is a “mahadalit”.
After the NCP chief was brought on board, at the meeting, three possible names were discussed — Meira Kumar, former home minister Sushilkumar Shinde and former Rajya Sabha MP Balachandra Mungekar. Mr Pawar, who spoke first, is learnt to have proposed the names of Mr Shinde and Mr Mungekar first and after that of Ms Kumar. However, almost all other Opposition leaders agreed on the former Speaker’s name.
After Mr Pawar, RJD chief Lalu Yadav spoke, arguing that there was a need to declare the candidate on Thursday itself. “If you delay it, there are chances that more people could leave,” he is understood to have said at the meeting.
Mr Yechury also referred to the JD(U)’s exit and insisted that a decision should be taken. He also suggested the names of Gopalkrishna Gandhi and Prakash Ambedkar.
Ms Kumar’s name was also acceptable to the Samajwadi Party and the BSP. BSP supremo Mayawati had said she would be forced to support Mr Kovind as he was a dalit, and could go with the Opposition only if they also chose a suitable dalit candidate. After the announcement on Thursday, she said the BSP would support Ms Kumar as the Opposition candidate was better qualified than the NDA one.
While the JD(U) skipped the meeting, the 17-party group remained intact with the RLD, represented by Ajit Singh, stepping in. Other leaders who attended included CPI’s D. Raja, JD(S)’s Danish Ali, DMK’s Kanimozhi, the National Conference’s Omar Abdullah, BSP’s Satish Chandra Mishra, and the SP’s Ram Gopal Yadav and Naresh Agrawal.