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A contest for the post of the President looked inevitable with leading Opposition parties determined to field a candidate against Ram Nath Kovind despite cracks in their unity after Janata Dal (United) today decided to support the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) candidate.
The Opposition candidate is also certain to be a Dalit, Opposition sources said. The name will be decided at Thursday's meeting of the Opposition parties, but former Lok Sabha speaker Meira Kumar, daughter of former deputy prime minister Jagjivan Ram, has emerged as the frontrunner.
Meira Kumar met Congress president Sonia Gandhi at the latter's 10, Janpath residence today. Other names being discussed are of Congress leaders Mallikarjun Kharge, Sushilkumar Shinde, Bhalchandra Mungnekar and Maharashtra's Dalit leader Prakash Ambedkar.
Janata Dal (United) will skip the meeting, bringing the number of parties willing to oppose the NDA candidate to 16. Opposition sources didn't rule out some others among the group of 17 parties deciding to support Kovind under "relentless pressure", but said efforts were on to keep the flock together.
According to sources in the Opposition, JD (U) leaders phoned senior Opposition leaders to explain their stand, especially how Bihar was starved of revenue because of the state government's liquor ban since April 2016. The Bihar government, that JD (U) chief Nitish Kumar leads, is hopeful of increased central assistance.
JD (U) spokesperson KC Tyagi said the party's decision to support Kovind was a "one off" and that his party was committed to Opposition unity. JD(U) ally Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) chief Lalu Prasad said Opposition parties would meet in New Delhi on Thursday. The RJD favours fielding a candidate against the NDA candidate. The Kerala unit of JD (U), which is a constituent of the ruling Left Democratic Front, today said it will not back Kovind.
West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee phoned the Congress president Sonia Gandhi to convey her support to Meira Kumar's candidature. The Bihar CM also phoned the Congress president to explain his party's position. Union Minister M Venkaiah Naidu welcomed JD (U)'s decision. Naidu said JD (U)'s support to Kovind "clearly speakers of his wider acceptability".
Opposition parties are confident that Samajwadi Party will support the Opposition candidate, but Bahujan Samaj Party might need convincing. The Aam Aadmi Party will not attend Thursday's meeting, but has conveyed that it will support the Opposition candidate, preferably a non-Congress person. Meira Kumar, since she has served as the Lok Sabha speaker and has an image beyond her party, could be acceptable to non-Congress parties.
The Congress and Communist Party of India (Marxist) said they were determined to contest. Congress leaders said they would go by consensus on the choice of the candidate.
"We are not against the particular person (Kovind). It is a political fight. Barring 1977, there has always been a contest. For the Left, the President is the custodian of the Constitution. The Constitution is being undermined as evident from recent events. We need a protector of the Constitution rather than somebody who undermines it," CPI (M) chief Sitaram Yechury said.