Former Bihar Governor Ram Nath Kovind and former Lok Sabha speaker Meira Kumar will face off in the elections to pick India's 14th President. Voting began at 10 am today for a battle that the opposition has pitched as "ideological".
Meira Kumar's candidature was announced by the Opposition only after the ruling NDA had named its candidate; Prime Minister Narendra Modi's choice of a Dalit candidate was seen as a masterstroke to divide the opposition and keep allies together.
Nitish Kumar's Janata Dal United broke ranks with the opposition to announce support for Mr Kovind and BJP's fractious ally Shiv Sena found itself outmanoeuvred. In this election, the numbers are stacked against the opposition. The BJP and allies have well over 60 per cent of the vote.
On the eve of elections to select the 14th president of the country, which NDA candidate Ram Nath Kovind looks set to sweep, Congress president Sonia Gandhi sought “a vote of conscience”, calling the contest “a clash of ideas and a conflict of disparate values”.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was addressing an all-party meeting ahead of the Parliament session, said it would have been better if the President had been chosen by consensus. “However, it is a matter of satisfaction and pride that the election campaign has been a dignified one. All the political parties need to be congratulated. All parties must train their MPs and MLAs to cast their votes so that not a single vote is wasted,” he added.
A total of 95 candidates filed nominations for the top Constitutional post, of which 93 were rejected on various grounds, leaving only Kovind and Opposition candidate Meira Kumar in the fray. While Kumar has support of 17 opposition parties, Kovind is set to get nearly 70 per cent of the electoral college votes.
Sonia acknowledged this in her speech on Sunday, at a meeting of non-NDA parties with Meira Kumar and the Opposition’s vice-presidential candidate, Gopalkrishna Gandhi. The numbers may be against the Opposition, she said, but “the battle must be fought and fought hard”. “We cannot and must not let India be hostage to those who wish to impose upon it a narrow-minded, divisive and communal vision,” Sonia said.
The Opposition’s campaign had been dealt the most decisive blow by the JD(U), a Congress ally in Bihar, which decided to back Kovind after being the first to moot the idea of putting up a joint candidate against the NDA’s. Taking the JD(U)’s cue, other parties had later lined up behind Kovind.
On Sunday, the JD(U) again absented itself from the Opposition meeting, though it has backed Gandhi for vice-president. It also stayed away from the all-party meeting chaired by Modi.
Explaining why they couldn’t attend the Opposition meeting, a JD(U) functionary said, “Why does the Congress create such an embarrassing situation for us? Why did they organise the meeting of MPs with both Meira Kumar and Gandhi? When we have not supported Meira Kumar’s candidature, how could we go there?”
Senior JD(U) leader Sharad Yadav later went to meet Gandhi at his residence in Delhi and assured him of the party’s support. As of now, 18 parties have supported his candidature.
A source in the BJP familiar with Kovind’s election campaign said that the NDA nominee, who had started with 28 parties backing him, now has the support of 42. As part of his campaign, Kovind visited 27 states, including in the Northeast. The BJP leader said he got a good response everywhere. Meira Kumar also campaigned across states, starting from Gandhi Ashram in Sabarmati.
In her speech, Sonia said, “What is at stake is our future, and the values we cherish and must uphold, especially at this time of grave disquiet. This election represents a clash of ideas, a conflict of disparate values. The election demands a vote of conscience to preserve the India that the Mahatma and that illustrious generation of freedom fighters, joined by thousands upon thousands of ordinary men and women, fought for.”
Noting that the president and vice-president are constitutional heads of state and are entrusted to discharge the duties of their offices in a manner that preserves, protects and defends both the Constitution and the law, she said, “Both of these are, sadly, under siege today.”
A former Bihar governor, Kovind hails from Uttar Pradesh while Meira Kumar, who earlier served as Lok Sabha Speaker, is the daughter of former deputy prime minister Jagjivan Ram. Though both the BJP and Congress highlighted the caste of their candidates, Meira Kumar had disapproved of projecting it as a “Dalit versus Dalit” fight.
Kovind has underlined the importance of maintaining the supremacy of the Constitution and said he had had nothing to do with any party since he became governor, and that he believed that the post of president should be above party politics.
The counting of votes will take place on July 20 in New Delhi after all the ballot boxes have been brought from various state capitals. Incumbent Pranab Mukherjee’s term comes to an end on July 24.
A total of 4,896 voters — 4,120 MLAs and 776 elected MPs — are eligible to cast their ballot. Since the election is through a secret ballot, the parties cannot issue a whip to their members to vote for a particular candidate. A total of 32 polling stations — one in Parliament House and one each in the state legislative Assemblies — have been set up.
Thirty-three observers have been appointed by the EC to oversee the election. While two observers will be present in Parliament House, one each will be deployed at the Assemblies.
Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and Goa CM Manohar Parrikar are among 55 MPs who will vote in their Assemblies instead of Parliament House. Five MLAs will cast their ballot in Parliament House.