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    View: The dilemma within opposition in backing its own presidential candidate

    View: The dilemma within opposition in backing its own presidential candidate

    View: The dilemma within opposition in backing its own presidential candidate
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    By KV Prasad   IST (Published)

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    The July 18 presidential election is a direct contest between BJP-led NDA’s Droupadi Murmu and the combined opposition candidate Yashwant Sinha. With the odds heavily favouring the official candidate of the parties in government, partners in the opposition like the JMM ponder whether to vote for a women leader from a tribal community whose voices the party represents or be part of the opposition group. This is not the first time such choices were made as elections of 1969, 2002 and 2012 indicate.

    The elections to the President of India took an interesting turn after the Trinamool Congress Chief and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee statement apportioning blame on the governing Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) not reaching out to the opposition on its candidate.
    The remark by Mamata Banerjee, who took the lead in formalising Yashwanth Sinha as the joint opposition candidate, a former Union Minister and once associated both with the BJP and Trinamool Congress led to a lingering doubt about the real intention of the proposer.
    Is Mamata Banerjee having a change of heart? Her remark that the NDA candidate Draupadi Murmu could have been a consensus candidate created a buzz amid increasing support for the NDA candidate who is all set to enter the Rashtrapati Bhawan as the first tribal woman president later this month.
    The BJP-led NDA was assured of the numbers favouring its candidate after the YSR Congress, the Biju Janata Dal, Shiromani Akali Dal and smaller parties in UP announced support to Ms Murmu. Now even Shiv Sena president Udhav Thackeray decided to back the NDA candidate, probably a fait accompli after the split in the party. The NDA can now expect a sizable increase in the votes while Sinha stares at the prospect of a shrink as the voting day arrives.
    The first sign of stirrings within the otherwise heterogenous opposition camp came when the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha began showing disquiet. The compulsion before JMM, a leading voice of the tribals of the region, was clear.
    Representing the interests of this section the JMM party of ‘Guruji’ Shibu Soren and his Chief Minister son Hemant Soren could not back its own candidate against Ms Murmu, who hails from the Santhal tribal community.
    Technically, the JMM is in the Opposition camp and runs a coalition government with the Congress in Jharkhand. Its representative attended early round of meetings when discussions for a joint opposition candidate began.
    Earlier this week, the NDA Presidential candidate Murmu reached out to JMM leadership seeking support even as Union Minister Annapurna Devi from the state appealed to all women in the electoral college to vote for Ms. Murmu.
    As per rules, no party can issue a whip in the elections to the office of the President and Vice President and members of the electoral college consisting of MPs and MLAs may or not vote according to party decision.
    Latest reports indicate Banerjee decided that she would campaign for Sinha in West Bengal and he can canvas in other states. The party will have to do a balancing act in backing Mr Sinha and yet appear not to antagonise the Santhal community that has a presence in some parts of the state to determine the electoral outcome in general elections to the State Assembly and the Lok Sabha.
    This would not be the first time that such a situation arose where members of the supporting party (ies) face a dilemma of whom to choose, the officially sponsored candidate or the other person in the fray.
    In 1969, for the first and only time the candidate officially fielded by the Congress party then in the government lost the election. Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy who was the candidate declared by the Congress was challenged by Varahgiri Venkata Giri, who became the candidate backed by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
    The showdown was the result of an intense tussle for control of the Grand Old Party, then in the clutches of the Old Guard and PM Indira Gandhi, who found it sought to loosen the stranglehold while gradually asserting her leadership over the party.
    Giri, a Telugu-speaking trade union leader from Odisha resigned as the Vice President and entered the fray as an independent. In a subtle message to her supporters in the Congress, Indira Gandhi urged members to exercise a ‘conscience vote’, a euphemism to vote for Giri. The rest is history. Giri got some 4 lakh votes as against 3.13 lakh plus for Reddy. Former Union Minister CD Deshmukh, a candidate supported by Swatantra Party and Jana Sangh collected 1.12 lakh votes in a field of 15.
    Then in 1987, the United Front government led by the Janata Dal and backed by the Left parties, decision to field former diplomat-turned-Union Minister K R Narayanan, forced the hand of the Congress and the BJP to support the candidature of the first Dalit in the top constitutional post. Yet, there was a contest with former Chief Election Commissioner T N Seshan fielded by the Shiv Sena. It was the first election to the post after changes in the law raised the bar to restrict polls to serious candidates.
    Fast forward to 2002 when the BJP-led NDA Government of Atal Behari Vajpayee selected rocket scientist APJ Abdul Kalam as the candidate led to fissures in the Left-led Lok Morcha that decided on Captain Lakshmi Sahgal, a member of Netaji Bose’s INA. Mulayam Singh’s Samajwadi Party had different plans and did not wince in wrecking the arrangement and supporting Abdul Kalam. The Congress filed a separate set of papers endorsing Kalam who emerged a clear winner with 9.22 lakh votes as against Sahgal’s 1.07 lakh.
    A situation arose in 2012 when the Samajwadi Party and Trinamool Congress moved away from earlier plans and decided to back Pranab Mukherjee who was the candidate of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance. The BJP-led NDA had a separate plan and fielded former Lok Sabha Speaker Purno A Sangma, who was once a colleague of Mukherjee in the Congress party.
    As precedents show, the current presidential polls should be no different in which the electors would have the opportunity to vote according to their own choice and not necessarily for a candidate picked by the party (ies) they belong to.
    — KV Prasad is a senior journalist and has earlier worked with The Hindu and The Tribune. Views expressed are personal.
    Read his other columns here
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