The Presidential election is an important opportunity for the opposition parties to galvanise itself ahead of the big political battle in 2024. President Ram Nath Kovind’s term ends in July and it is not yet clear whether the BJP intends to give him another term. Except for the first President Rajendra Prasad, nobody else has got a second term. The BJP is most likely to field a new candidate and leaders like Rajnath Singh and JP Nadda have already started reaching out to friendly parties. The Opposition is also keen to put up a contest even as the electoral college is favourable to the ruling party. Congress president Sonia Gandhi has already talked to leaders like NCP veteran Sharad Pawar and Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, signalling the intent to ensure a contest in the presidential election. The Opposition fought against Kovind as well, fielding former Lok Sabha speaker and Dalit leader Meira Kumar as the joint candidate. The BJP too had put up candidates against Pranab Mukherjee and other Congress nominees despite clear numerical deficiency.
The Presidential election is not merely about victory and defeat. It creates an opportunity for the Opposition to talk about the Government’s performance during the campaign. The Congress and other opposition parties badly need this opportunity because of the shrinking media space for their voice in the Narendra Modi regime. A contest also bolsters the impression that the Government faces opposition and its supremacy is not unchallenged. In this election, though the BJP has a clear edge, the victory is not fully assured without the support of friendly parties. The shortfall of a 1% vote can enable the Opposition to put up a credible challenge. If the Opposition manages to expand its horizon, political discourse may become interesting in the run-up to the election.
What is perhaps more critical is the opposition unity. The united opposition disintegrated over the past few months with Trinamool leader Mamata Banerjee charting her own course by attacking Rahul Gandhi and the Congress. Though her discussions with other opposition leaders to launch a non-Congress third front didn’t fructify, it dealt a body blow to the opposition unity. The differences widened when Trinamool Congress contested the Goa election separately, creating a trust deficit between them and the Congress. Efforts of Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrashekar Rao to sew up an alternative deepened the suspicions, giving credence to the speculation about the conspiracy to isolate the Congress. Under these circumstances, it is important that Sonia took a fresh initiative to explore the possibilities of a joint candidate against the BJP. Though no names have surfaced so far, the BJP will have to work much harder to push its candidate if the Opposition can convince TRS, BJD, and YSR Congress to support their candidate. The role of Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, who has maintained a tacit understanding with the BJP, will be crucial if the Opposition intends to put up a strong fight.
The grapevine has more fascinating theories which look far-fetched at present but cannot be ruled out. There is speculation about BJP ally Janata Dal-U leader and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar being in two minds. A realignment of forces in Bihar may open up new possibilities. There were rumours about some parties proposing Nitish himself as the opposition candidate. While this is in the realm of speculation, another possibility is Congress accepting the candidate suggested by the likes of Mamata Banerjee and Chandrashekar Rao, if they promise to attract wider support. The Congress should not insist on its own candidate and not because they don’t have the numbers to put up a fight.
Even a joint opposition is not enough; only an expanded opposition with the inclusion of parties like SP, TRS, Shiv Sena, and BJD can challenge the BJP. Given Modi’s skills and strength, any upset looks impossible but the opposition can definitely extract a psychological boost by forging a wider unity and creating a credible challenge. There is a possibility of Modi springing a surprise by fielding a tribal candidate. The political significance of the first-ever Adivasi President is immeasurable. Gujarat assembly election is scheduled at the year-end and tribals are angry with the BJP there. Modi would like to assuage their feelings before the critical election. There is a talk of the BJP looking southwards also where the party has limited footprints. The best course is to elect the President by consensus but that’s a utopian demand given the deeply fractured Indian polity. A contest in democracy anyway isn’t undesirable.