It Could Happen to You

Presidential elections 2017: Meira Kumar is not just a Dalit, she is a woman, a diplomat

Beyond names and numbers, it’s now time for hectic negotiations.

 |  It Could Happen to You  |  5-minute read |   23-06-2017
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On June 19, when the NDA announced its candidate of choice for the presidential race, Ram Nath Kovind, the outspoken West Bengal chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, tossed her head and said: “Ke? Ami chini na (Who? I don’t know him)”. By and large, she echoed the national opinion.

On June 22, when the Opposition announced a counter-candidate, Meira Kumar, Banerjee promptly extended support to her candidature. Even in the 2012 presidential election, she had backed Kumar for the post, over Pranab Mukherjee: “If you ask my party's choice, or my personal choice, I'll say, I love Meira Kumar. She is a soft-spoken lady from scheduled caste background.”

By and large, the public has a positive image of Kumar: the first woman Lok Sabha speaker of India, neat and professional in her silk sarees and school teacher demeanour, scolding unruly legislators in her soft, sing-song voice, ”Shaant ho jaayen (be quiet)”.

Maths of Raisina Hills

But the man (or woman) who occupies the House on Raisina Hill in Delhi, is chosen not so much by personal choice or ideology, but by the logic of complex political arithmetic; by an electoral college of MPs and MLAs, not universal adult franchise.

NDA is expected to get the first saffron president of its choice this time. With victories in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Manipur and Goa, the math behind the presidential election seems clearly in NDA’s favour. The halfway mark of the total 11 lakh votes of the electoral college (or one more than 5,49,442) can make or break a party’s chances of getting its choice of president elected.

Before Assembly elections 2017, NDA’s strength was around 4.5 lakh, meaning a shortfall of 1.85 lakh votes. With support from key constituent Shiv Sena, the ruling party’s strength now is around 5.32 lakh votes. With a little help from its allies, the NDA can bridge that gap.

kovindbd_062317115544.jpgNitish Kumar has decided to back the NDA candidate Ram Nath Kovind.

NDA was reaching out to Opposition parties in the hope of an all-party consensus, in which case its candidate would not have to face an election. But Kumar’s candidature makes that plan null-and-void. Questions are being raised: are all the NDA allies on board on Kovind? What will happen to the numbers, if even one ally backs out?

The Congress-led Opposition is falling short by more than 1.5 lakh votes from the majority mark. But Banerjee’s perception matters, because her votes are crucial in presidential elections. Her party has the third-largest vote value (64,000) in the electoral college, after the BJP and the Congress. As a veteran, she also has excellent equations with a lot of politicians: Sonia Gandhi to Mayawati.

“Naveen and I are old friends. I am talking to him for Presidential election,” she has said recently. Odisha CM Naveen Patnaik’s BJD has around 36,500 votes in the electoral college. Shiv Sena and NCP, both BJP allies, had joined hands with her during demonetisation, when she led a march to the Rashtrapati Bhavan from Parliament. The National Conference and AAP had also joined the Bengal CM.

All eyes are on Shiv Sena, which has about 25,893 votes (and also the habit of ditching the NDA during presidential elections). Nitish Kumar has decided to back the NDA candidate, but that has made his alliance Lalu Prasad Yadav angry.

Nitish Kumar also has a record of supporting rival candidates: in the last presidential election when he was in the NDA, he had supported Pranab Mukherjee against the alliance candidate PA Sangma.

Dalit Vs Dalit

To BJP insiders, it’s common knowledge that the NDA nominee had to be either a Dalit (or a tribal or a woman). It’s a political imperative, closely linked to the identity politics of Hindi heartland, especially at a time of rising caste-violence in Saharanpur, the assertion of the Bhim Army and escalating Dalit protest against upper caste atrocities after the elevation of Yogi Adityanath, a Thakur, as the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh.

There is also the issue of cow vigilantism and beef ban, that has hit hard sections of Dalits that subsist on skinning cows.

Left groups in Gujarat have also kicked off a movement against the BJP, following the merciless thrashing of five Dalits in Una, Saurashtra in 2016. Kovind, who hails from UP and has served as the governor of Bihar, is a key symbol of empowerment to woo the electorally formidable Dalit community in the two states — which together gave 104 Lok Sabha seats to the NDA in 2014 General elections — in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.

But what was being seen as “a fine master stroke” of the prime minister and BJP president Amit Shah until yesterday, may turn out to be quite the contrary. Meira Kumar is not just a Dalit, she is a woman, the daughter of a famous Dalit leader — Babu Jagjivan Ram, former deputy prime minister and India’s longest-serving parliamentarian.

At a time of Dalit assertion, it’s bound to matter that he could not continue studies at the Benares Hindu University (BHU) because of the caste discrimination he faced; or that his family could never enter the Puri Jagannath temple, for being Dalit. Meira Kumar, a career diplomat, may just be a bigger symbol of empowerment for Dalits.

Wait and watch

Beyond names and numbers, it’s now time for hectic negotiations. Wait for July 17, the day of presidential election, to find out who wins and who loses in the end.

Also read: How Meira Kumar versus Ram Nath Kovind has landed Nitish Kumar in trouble


Damayanti Datta Damayanti Datta @dattadamayanti

The writer is Executive Editor, India Today.

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