BJP’s presidential nominee will be a surprise. But who might that be?

Recently, a senior journalist tweeted a question: What are the chances that any of those being discussed now will become the next President of India? One of the responders—he is also known to have credible insights into the BJP’s functioning—said: “Close to zero.” And the answer kind of captures what some of us may be missing in the run-up to the July 18 poll to elect India’s 16th President.

On Wednesday, West Bengal Chief Minister and TMC leader Mamata Banerjee held a meeting of opposition leaders, including those from the Congress, and decided to discuss names for a joint presidential candidate. How joint that candidate will be is a question, given the fact that nobody from parties such as the AAP (Delhi and Punjab), the TRS (Telangana), the YSRCP (Andhra Pradesh), the SAD (Punjab) and the BJD (Odisha) attended the meeting despite invitations.

The Left was part of the deliberations but isn’t happy with Banerjee’s “unilateral actions.” However, two names have been suggested: former West Bengal Governor and Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson, Gopalkrishna Gandhi, and former Jammu & Kashmir CM Farooq Abdullah.

On the other hand, not much is being talked about the camp, the ruling BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), which is almost sure to win the election whose result will be announced on July 21. The NDA has an advantage over the opposition in any likely contest. So, few are wondering which camp will win. The question is: who will be the NDA’s candidate?

Union minister Rajnath Singh and BJP president JP Nadda are talking to opposition parties for a consensus candidate. The name might have already been decided, but we don’t know who that could be. Not many even within the BJP do.

But past presidential elections show some unmissable patterns. The NDA’s choice has a robust electoral outreach and political import. And, more importantly, it catches the opposition off guard, even forcing some of its constituents to go with the NDA. And this might make the numbers, which look in the NDA’s favour now, a bit more irrelevant.

The NDA’s choice has a robust electoral outreach and political import. And, more importantly, it catches the opposition off guard, even forcing some of its constituents to go with the NDA. And this might make the numbers, which look in the NDA’s favour now, a bit more irrelevant.

In 2002, the NDA fielded APJ Abdul Kalam as its candidate for the post of India’s President. The move stumped the opposition Congress and regional parties such as the Samajwadi Party (Uttar Pradesh) and the TDP (Andhra Pradesh) who ultimately backed India’s “missile man” for the country’s top constitutional post. So did Banerjee.

Kalam belonged to Tamil Nadu and the two main parties from the state, the AIADMK and the DMK, had no reasons to oppose him. The only exception was the Left that fielded freedom fighter Lakshmi Sahgal who lost in a one-sided contest.

More recently, during the last election in 2017, the NDA sprang a surprise by picking the then Bihar Governor and low-profile Dalit leader, Ram Nath Kovind. He won easily. We have seen how the BJP, with this and other such moves, has won over large sections of voters from the Dalit community in elections.

The NDA may repeat Kovind or surprise us with another surprising choice in the presidential election for which voting will happen only when there is no one consensus candidate from both camps. Some reports say Karnataka Governor and Dalit leader Thawar Chand Gehlot, Telangana Governor Tamilsai Soundararajan and former Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan might also be considered.

We don’t know if this is even a consideration, but Union minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi fits the BJP’s knack of reaching out electorally significant communities and leaving the opposition with little choice. He is a Shia Muslim. His wife is a Hindu. Sections of Shia Muslims have been softer on the BJP. Whatever support for the NDA government’s law against triple talaq came from the Muslim community, it came from Shia Muslims.

Naqvi has not been nominated for the Rajya Sabha, and the Lok Sabha polls will happen only in 2024. His candidature cannot really be ruled out. Kerala Governor Mohammad Arif Khan can be another such choice.

There are many other such probabilities. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has often praised the Tamil culture, saying the Tamil language is older than even Sanskrit. Suppose a Tamilian from down south is picked as the presidential nominee. In that case, it will help the BJP make inroads into an almost virgin territory and it will be difficult for even some opposition parties like the TRS to oppose the candidature. It will also be difficult for Tamil Nadu’s ruling party, the DMK, to stay on in the opposition camp. The BJP was anyway an ally of Tamil Nadu’s opposition party, the AIADMK, in the last state polls.

And what if the NDA chooses a tribal candidate? Who will convincingly fight against the campaign to elect India’s first tribal President? It will be easier for even the so-called independents like the BJD and the YSRCP (Andhra Pradesh) to eventually back the NDA as they often do.

The NDA’s tribal probables include former Jharkhand Governor Draupadi Murmu, Chhattisgarh Governor Anusuiya Uikey, and Odisha’s Jual Oram. A candidate from the North-East will have similar advantages.

And imagine a Bengali NDA candidate from West Bengal? It might even force Banerjee to reconsider her choice. It has happened in the past. In 2012, she made a U-turn only 48 hours before the election and voted for the UPA’s presidential candidate, Pranab Mukherjee. As the second-largest constituent, she had created a coalition crisis by proposing other names. Mukherjee became the first Bengali to be elected India’s President. Despite their personal equations, it was always difficult for the West Bengal Chief Minister not to back a Bengali.

In 2012, Mamata Banerjee made a U-turn only 48 hours before the election and voted for the UPA’s presidential candidate, Pranab Mukherjee. As the second-largest constituent, she had created a coalition crisis by proposing other names. Mukherjee became the first Bengali to be elected India’s President.

And now to the West. The NCP–part of Maharashtra’s Shiv Sena-led ruling alliance MVA also comprising the Congress—is with Banerjee in picking a joint opposition face. But there might be a twist even there. In the last three presidential elections, the Shiv Sena, then part of the NDA, voted against its coalition’s choice. And this leaves some room for the Sena to back the NDA’s choice even when it’s no longer part of the BJP-led grouping if the choice suits Maharashtra’s ruling party.

But why is Banerjee putting in so much effort when the NDA’s victory in the presidential election is almost inevitable? It’s all about 2024 when India goes to the polls.

She knows Congress is demoralised by mounting electoral defeats; its leader Rahul Gandhi is embroiled in the National Herald money-laundering case; its president Sonia Gandhi is battling ill health; AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal, having eaten into much of the Congress’s support base, doesn’t quite want to look like an anti-Modi leader so that he can win over BJP voters without upsetting them; and TRS leader K Chandrashekar Rao does not have that kind of national appeal.

Banerjee knows it’s her best chance to project herself as Modi’s alternative. The BJP also knows her desires will only further overshadow and undermine Congress. The presidential poll could just be another opportunity for the BJP to perpetuate the notions of deep divisions and, by extension, the lack of a credible alternative in the opposition camp.

(India’s President is elected by members of the Electoral College comprising elected members of both Houses of Parliament, and elected members of the Legislative Assemblies of all states and the National Capital Territory of Delhi and the Union Territory of Puducherry)

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