In what could come as a big jolt to opposition unity, the Janata Dal United (JD-U), led by Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, on Wednesday confirmed that the party will support NDA's presidential candidate Ram Nath Kovind.
Senior party leader KC Tyagi informed that the party will skip tomorrow’s meeting of opposition parties. Besides, he said that the Congress party will also extend support to Kovind’s name. Leaders of 18 opposition parties will meet on Thursday to discuss the probability of a joint candidate.
"We have decided to extend support to NDA's presidential candidate Ram Nath Kovind as his tenure as Governor had been peaceful," he said.
"The party has decided to support Ram Nath Kovind. As the party has decided to support Kovind, there is no need for it to attend the meeting of opposition parties being held in New Delhi," party spokesperson Rajiv Ranjan said.
The setback for the opposition came at a meeting of JD-U legislators and MPs in which Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and several MLAs expressed their opinion that the NDA candidate and his credentials are good given that he hails from a Dalit community and has a humble background. With possible support of JD-U, the vote share of NDA in the electoral college go up to almost 63 per cent.
Ranjn also informed that his party's decision has been conveyed to Congress president Sonia Gandhi and RJD supremo Lalu Prasad Yadav.
Earlier, JD-U Chief Whip Ratnesh Sada told reporters in Patna that the party has decided to support Kovind.
Wednesday's decision yet again confirms Nitish Kumar's style of taking decisions on his own irrespective of his allies' position and his political opposition to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Soon after the BJP had announced Kovind's candidature on Monday, Nitish had good words to say about the former Bihar Governor on whom, he also made a courtesy call. Nitish Kumar is known to take independent decision like his welcoming the demonetisation decision and surgical strikes last year and the JD-U voting for UPA candidate Pranab Mukherjee while sharing power with BJP in the state.
The JD-U decision came as a shock for the 17-party front led by Congress which is meeting in New Delhi on Thursday to decide on its strategy in the Presidential election, most probably putting up a candidate in what the Left parties called an ‘ideological battle’. It remains to be seen whether BSP, which has also said that it cannot oppose a Dalit candidate unless the opposition has a more popular Dalit nominee, attends the opposition meeting.
Lalu to go with opposition parties
Meanwhile, RJD supremo Lalu Prasad said that his party will go with other opposition parties in their choice for a presidential candidate. "We will go with the decision of opposition parties, which will meet in New Delhi tomorrow (Thursday, June 22)," he told reporters.
Lalu brushed aside questions on the JD(U) extending support to NDA's pick for the president's post. The RJD supremo had earlier flayed the NDA for not consulting opposition parties and evolve a consensus on the presidential election.
Congress has refused support to Kovind's candidature and said the opposition will put up its own presidential candidate.
Meanwhile, the Congress said that the question whether they would be putting up a candidate against Kovind will be known only after Thursday's meeting.
However, CPI-M General Secretary Sitaram Yechury was more clear when he said there would be a ‘strong candidate’ against Kovind. "The question is of a political battle -- whether the basics of our Constitution would be protected or RSS would convert the country into a Hindu Rashtra (nation)."
Samajwadi Party President Akhilesh Yadav, whose father Mulayam Singh Yadav is toeing a different line, said that his party would go with the opposition led by Congress. "There should be no talk about whether a Dalit should be there (be a President)... caste or religion. Whoever would be the protector of the Constitution should be above caste and religion," he said, adding that his party would attend the opposition's meeting on Thursday.
CPI leader D Raja acknowledged that the JD-U move, if correct, was a setback to the opposition. "17 paties came together on the issue of Presidential election and if some parties take a different decision...We have a meeting tomorrow. Let us see how many parties are going to attend," he said.
The names doing the rounds as possible opposition candidates include former Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar and former Maharashtra Chief Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde, both of the Congress and both Dalits. The names of Meira Kumar and Shinde have been floated to counter the NDA so that parties like the BSP would have no problem going against the NDA Dalit candidate.
The NDA, including Shiv Sena and the PDP of Jammu and Kashmir, which has extended support to Kovind, commands the support of 48.93 per cent in the electoral college made up of MPs and MLAs. With the backing of parties outside the alliance like TRS (2 per cent), AIADMK (5.39 per cent), YSR Congress (1.53 per cent) and BJD (2.99 per cent), the NDA's support would cross the half way mark comfortably to reach nearly 63 per cent in the July 17 battle, with JD-U contributing 1.91 per cent.