The Opposition seemed divided ahead of Thursday’s crucial meeting on the presidential poll, with the JD-U extending its support to NDA’s candidate Ram Nath Kovind on Wednesday.
The opposition is yet to name its candidate for the poll, but former speaker Meira Kumar’s meeting with Congress president Sonia Gandhi at her residence, a day before the meeting, fuelled speculation that she had emerged as the front runner.
Like Kovind, Meira Kumar belongs to the Dalit community. She was the first woman speaker of Lok Sabha and also has been a Union Minister.
Sources said the JD(U)’s announcement led to hectic deliberations through the day between senior leaders of the Congress and other non-NDA parties on how to keep the opposition together.
The Congress, which is coordinating the opposition meet, expressed the hope that leaders of all parties which attended the May 26 luncheon hosted by Gandhi would be present on Thursday.
Sources said top Congress and other opposition leaders talked to several leaders to ensure the presence of all non- NDA parties at the meeting, which will decide on the opposition’s presidential candidate.
“No matter what happens, we will contest the election,” a senior Left leader said.
Asked about the Congress’s choice for the poll, AICC spokesperson Manish Tewari said it was a “hypothetical” question, adding that the Opposition would decide on a joint strategy for the July 17 poll on Thursday.
“Given that we are talking about the Highest Constitutional office in the country and there are opposition parleys which are undergoing, it would be inappropriate for me to second-guess this,” he said about a possible Congress candidate.
Tiwari said, “There will be a far clear, coherent and an articulate answer available” after the meeting.
A JD(U) leader said its move backing Kovind was a “one- time, isolated case”, maintaining that opposition unity was intact on other issues.
Samajwadi Party’s Naresh Agrawal said opposition parties would jointly take a call on a candidate at the meeting.
However, some Left leaders pointed to SP leader Mulayam Singh Yadav’s presence at a yoga day event, attended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in Lucknow.
Sources said sections of the opposition had decided they were going to put up a candidate against Kovind and turn the election into an ideological fight.
But they admitted that by putting up a dalit candidate, the NDA had left the opposition camp with fewer options.
The opposition may field a dalit against Kovind and among the names being discussed are those of B R Ambedkar’s grandson Prakash Ambedkar and former minister Sushilkumar Shinde, apart from Meira Kumar’s.
Left sources, however, said the Congress was yet to propose a name.
“Senior Congress leaders spoke to left leaders over the telephone about tomorrow’s meeting. Though Kumar and Shinde’s names are doing the rounds, there was no formal or informal word from the Congress side,” a senior Left leader said.
The sources said former ambassador and governor Gopalkrishna Gandhi was still among the probables.
They admitted that Kovind’s nomination had dented opposition unity with the JD-U declaring its support to the NDA nominee.
“But how far that nomination has affected our unity will be known only tomorrow and will be based on the number of leaders who will be there,” the sources said.
JD-U’s spokesperson K C Tyagi said the JD(U) would not attend the opposition meeting, saying that it was now “irrelevant” for his party after it had supported Kovind, a low profile dalit leader whose nomination by the BJP has drawn support from several non-NDA parties.
Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, who is the JD(U) president, praised Kovind’s tenure as the governor of Bihar on Monday soon after BJP chief Amit Shah named him as the ruling group’s presidential pick.
Tyagi also insisted JD(U)’s support on the presidential poll was an “isolated incident” and the party would continue to be with the opposition in its battle against the saffron party in the future.
“This isolated incident will have no bearing on our efforts for the larger opposition unity,” he said.
Reacting to the JD(U)’s decision to support Kovind’s nomination, CPI national secretary D Raja said the Nitish Kumar-led party should have consulted other opposition parties before supporting Kovind.
He, however, maintained the JD(U)’s move would not affect opposition unity.
(With agency inputs)