All for one? : On Congress’ strategy to contest in presidential poll

Congress will need to reach out to friends and foes to make a contest of the presidential poll

That opposition parties have begun talks on putting up a common candidate in the presidential election suggests they think they may be able to pressure the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party to settle for a consensus candidate as India’s next President. Over the last three years, the Narendra Modi government has shown no inclination to be accommodative of the opposition’s views, either in formulating legislation or in framing policies. A reflection of this is the strategy of bypassing the Rajya Sabha, where the BJP-led coalition is in a minority, by disguising important pieces of legislation as money bills. Thus, rather than wait in the possibly false hope that the BJP may opt for a consensus candidate for President, the Congress has decided to initiate talks with other parties on fielding a common candidate. After the election of A.P.J. Abdul Kalam in 2002, when major parties barring the Left were agreed on the choice, India has not had an apolitical presidential candidate acceptable to both the Congress and the BJP. Mr. Kalam, while accepting the BJP’s nomination, had wanted to be an all-party candidate, and the then Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, had spoken to Congress president Sonia Gandhi on the ruling combine’s choice. Both Pratibha Patil and Pranab Mukherjee were Congress politicians and the BJP fielded candidates against them. In all likelihood, the BJP will have its own candidate without following Mr. Vajpayee’s consensus-building approach. Of course, unlike in 2002, when it had less than 200 MPs in the Lok Sabha and was out of power in a large number of States, the BJP is now in an enviable position. The election is for it to lose.

Although the odds are heavily stacked against an opposition victory, the BJP is slightly short of a majority, leaving a small window of opportunity for the former. Ms. Gandhi has already begun talks with leaders of parties such as the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the CPI, the Samajwadi Party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal, and the Nationalist Congress Party, all of which have fought with the Congress as an ally in past Assembly elections. Parties such as the Biju Janata Dal may not feel compelled to join the opposition bandwagon, but the Congress might have better luck with the Trinamool Congress and the Bahujan Samaj Party, though they too are not allies. In Tamil Nadu, the ruling AIADMK faction is ill-disposed toward the BJP, and the Congress might stand a chance in enlisting its support; the opposition DMK is in any case a staunch ally at this point, and is likely to back its choice. Clearly, the onus is on the Congress to find a candidate who is acceptable to such a wide spectrum of parties. The name of Vice-President Hamid Ansari would have suggested itself, but the Congress will be forced to do what the BJP is unlikely to do: build a consensus with an open mind.

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