A total of 17 Opposition parties, with their sights focused on putting up a strong and united challenge to the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, decided to field former Lok Sabha speaker Meira Kumar as their presidential candidate.
This makes the contest a Dalit versus Dalit race. Kumar is likely to file her nomination on Tuesday or Wednesday, the latter being the last day to do so.
The choice of Kumar, who hails from Bihar and is the daughter of the late Dalit icon, Jagjivan Ram, is also expected to put pressure on Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and his Janata Dal (United) legislators to cast “conscience votes” in her favour. On Wednesday, the JD (U) had decided to support NDA
candidate Ram Nath Kovind.
There was much drama that preceded the meeting at the Parliament House Library at 4.30 pm. Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Lalu Prasad
seemed unlikely to attend, as he had to appear in a Ranchi court in the fodder scam case. However, after the JD(U) said it was pulling out, the Congress
party leadership strove to ensure Prasad came. The hearing in Ranchi ended at 1 pm and by 4 pm, he’d landed at the Delhi airport.
Emerging from the meet, Prasad said he was holding an iftar
event in Patna on Friday and would appeal to ally Nitish Kumar, to rethink. With several leaders in the JD(U), including Sharad Yadav, unhappy at Nitish Kumar’s decision, the next few days in Bihar politics
could be interesting. That aside, Prasad said the JD(U) and RJD
alliance was intact.
But, another needed ally, Nationalist Congress
Party (NCP) chief Sharad Pawar, needed to be placated before the meeting. Congress
leaders Ghulam Nabi Azad and Ahmed Patel sat with Pawar for over three hours to persuade him to attend. Others present were the NCP’s Praful Patel and Tariq Anwar. With Pawar dithering, Azad asked Communist Party of India (Marxist) chief Sitaram Yechury
to join him and the rest at Pawar’s residence. Eventually, Pawar relented but not before the others dropped broad hints to him that he would be the natural leader of the combined Opposition going into the 2019 poll.
Opposition leaders said the imprint of Congress
president Sonia Gandhi
in keeping the flock together was the day's highlight. At the meeting, while Pawar argued for announcing the name of the candidate on Friday, others insisted it be done on Thursday itself. This is where Sonia Gandhi, supported by Yechury and Azad, stood firm to request all Opposition leaders to sign the nomination papers of Meira Kumar
there itself. Azad said it would save time; another reason was to ensure against anyone changing their stand.
At the meeting, Sonia Gandhi
welcomed the others and then asked Pawar to start the discussion. He suggested three names — Sushilkumar Shinde, Bhalchandra Mungekar and Meira Kumar.
Yechury said his party had first thought of Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson, Gopalkrishna Gandhi, but the former governor has requested this be reconsidered, as the NDA
was fielding a Dalit. Yechury mentioned the name of Prakash Ambedkar, grandson of dalit icon B R Ambedkar, with the Janata Dal (Secular)’s Danish Ali seconding him. But, the two also said their parties would agree to a consensus candidate.
The Trinamool Congress’ Derek O’Brien said his party chief, Mamata Banerjee, supported Meira Kumar’s candidature. RJD
chief Prasad backed Meira Kumar, as a daughter of Bihar and a suitable opponent to the NDA’s Kovind. He spoke of her political legacy and her stint as a diplomat. Bahujan Samaj Party’s Satish Chandra Mishra and the Samajwadi Party’s Ram Gopal Yadav and Naresh Aggarwal also supported her candidature.