It’s now clear that the more the UPA tried to stitch together a ‘Mahagathbandhan’ to put up a united opposition candidate for the presidential elections, quietly and unknown to them, the Narendra Modi-led NDA was chipping away bit by bit at the UPA.
The writing on the wall was clear to all, save the blind, as early as last month when after the first luncheon meeting hosted by Sonia Gandhi for the 17 anti-Modi party representatives to stay united would prove to be an uphill task.
Three days before Congress president's lunch for non-BJP leaders -- a meeting which was billed as the biggest anti-BJP grouping after the 2014 debacle -- Ahmed Patel, Sonia Gandhi's personal emissary and trusted man, called up Bihar chief minister and JD (U) chief Nitish Kumar to invite him for the luncheon. Kumar wriggled out citing scheduled appointments in Patna. Sensing that all's not well, Sonia Gandhi herself phoned the Bihar chief minister. And again, Kumar asked that he be excused, citing commitments that he had and senior party leader Sharad Yadav would represent the JD(U).
The ‘commitment’ he had given was of course to Narendra Modi who had invited the Bihar chief minister to attend a banquet he was hosting in honour of the visiting Prime Minister of Mauritius, the tiny Indian Ocean nation, over 50 per cent of whose population is of Bihari origin.
Later, Nitish would duck direct questions from the media stating, “This was an appointment fixed much earlier. As all of you know, there are many people of Bihari origin in that island nation and I considered it a privilege to be invited to meet him over lunch.”
But a clear signal had already gone down the Opposition line: Nitish Kumar was in the process of mending his relations with Modi even as corruption charges against his ally in the government, Lalu Yadav, mounted to dizzying heights. He could not be counted upon to quietly sign on the dotted line on a presidential candidate proposed by the rest of the anti Modi Opposition led by the Congress.
Sonia Gandhi’s disappointment with Nitish’s response turned into despair as Sharad Pawar, the NCP chief also played hookey. Sonia had tried, time and again, to try and convince him to take the lead on the panel to craft a consensus among the anti-Modi Opposition on a commonly agreed presidential candidate.
Though some parties were keen on another term for Mukherjee, the Congress itself was not and thus had to come up with a name that would fit everyone's bill. At the same time, it did not want to be seen as pushing a name down the throats of the other parties in the group. Pawar, with his vast personal connection with leaders of all the parties, was seen as the ideal person to cull a consensus. Especially since party Vice President Rahul Gandhi had earned his spurs already as a somewhat brash and immature leader incapable of the superior persuading skills and patience imperative for the task at hand.
Pawar, however, flatly refused, preferring instead to launch a broadside on Rahul’s “Here Now, Where Tomorrow” attitude to politics. In a TV interview, Pawar couched his irritation with soft words but pretty much managed to convey the message that to lead the anti-Modi pack, Rahul had a very long way to go. He needs to get more serious, needed to work terribly hard and junk, first of all, his somewhat nonchalant attitude to politics, Pawar asserted. It was the Maratha strongman’s way of saying that Rahul needed to reinvent himself, shed everything about himself that makes people in general refer to him as Pappu.
His party, the NCP, had earlier sent out feelers to the BJP in Maharashtra, indicating that should the Shiv Sena play difficult and withdraw support, the NCP was not averse to giving support. That eventuality did not arise at the time and, more recently, Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis openly dared the Sena by stating that, should there be need for a mid-term poll, he was fully ready for it. Given that backdrop, Pawar let Sonia Gandhi know, in no uncertain terms, that not only did Modi have the numbers firmly on his side and ample public popularity, but also advised that the best course for the Opposition to show maturity would be to pro-actively attempt a consensus with the BJP on its candidate.
The prime Minister got another shot in the arm when all MPs and an overwhelming share of MLAs of the AIADMK pledged support to the PM's choice. Party leader Thambi Durai told the media outright, “Amma always stood by the BJP and had warm personal relations with former Prime Minister A B Vajpayee. More recently, she has had good relations with PM Modi although they may not have seen eye to eye on Tamil Nadu-related issued. The AIADMK will continue with that position.” Both TRS chief K Chandrashekar Reddy and Jaganmohan Reddy of the YSR Congress, as well as the TDP's Chandrababu Naidu and others have thrown their eggs in the NDA's basket on this issue.
On Monday morning, Modi tweeted greetings to Rahul who was in distant Italy celebrating his 47th birthday in the company of his maternal grandmother. A few hours later, he got on the phone to Sonia and personally informed her about Kovind’s choice. The Bihar governor’s name was one that the prime minister kept close to his chest until this afternoon.
Suddenly, the Congress, struggling to stitch together an Opposition unity under its baton on the choice of President in a sort of dummy run for the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, was outmanoeuvred by PM Modi.
Despite being a governor, when Kovind’s name was first announced, the general reaction was: Kovind Who? That may be because despite being in politics for decades, there has not been a single controversy surrounding him. A senior advocate at the Allahabad High Court, he is well-versed in constitutional law, was a two-term MP of the Rajya Sabha. He is from the Koli Dalit community and even served as the head of the BJP's SC panel. Kovind, considered close to former PM A B Vajpayee, had never flaunted the strident Hindutva image on his sleeve although he is a hard-core partyman, representing all the ideological touch stones associated with the party's Hindutva worldview.
The choice of Kovind is as blatant an in-your-face taunt from the ruling party. The Opposition will make all the right noises and give sound-bytes about not being consulted, but at the end of the day, they can do no more than grin and bear it.