While Opposition parties are still mulling over the contours of a united fight against the Bharatiya Janata Party, the forthcoming election of the next president of India could well be the first test of their commitment to the formation of a national democratic and secular anti-BJP front.

Most of the Opposition parties – ranging from the Congress, the Janata Dal (United), Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Left parties to the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party – have publicly spoken about the need to come together to meet the challenge posed by a resurgent BJP. It is in this connection that it is being suggested that the Opposition parties should field a common candidate for the July Presidential poll.

After a series of informal conversations, Congress president Sonia Gandhi took the initiative to build a consensus on a common presidential nominee. She met Bihar chief minister and Janata Dal (U) president Nitish Kumar and Communist Party of India (Marxist) head Sitaram Yechury and has spoken to Communist Party of India leader D Raja and Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar.

Since all political parties have decided in their respective internal meetings to join hands for the presidential election, Raja said, structured talks will take place in the coming days to fine-tune their strategy. The idea will be given a final push after the National Democratic Alliance names its candidate, Raja said. There is general agreement that the candidate must have secular credentials.

Nitish Kumar had set the balling rolling on this issue in February when he had a round of meetings with Yechury, Pawar and Indian National Lok Dal leader Om Prakash Chautala where he underlined the need to put up a common presidential candidate.

Despite Nitish Kumar’s initial effort, opposition leaders were depending on the Congress to take the lead in this matter since it is the largest political party in the opposition camp. Now that Sonia Gandhi has done so, her first task will be to make sure that all the opposition parties who have been working together in Parliament remain together. She will then have to enlist the support of other parties – like the Biju Janata Dal – which tend to support the Modi government in most cases, and forge a consensus on an acceptable candidate.

A symbolic fight

The names of senior JD(U) leader Sharad Yadav and former Prime Minister Deve Gowda are doing the rounds. The candidature of either of these leaders, it is believed,will send out a strong political message, especially since the BJP is said to be looking for a candidate from the backward classes and, preferably from the South.

Opposition leaders are well aware that after its outstanding performance in the recent assembly elections, the BJP and its partners in the NDA will be able to ensure the victory of their presidential candidate. The ruling alliance is short by 25,000 votes but the BJP can bridge the gap by taking the help of friendly regional parties like the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the Telangana Rashtriya Samithi, the Biju Janata Dal and other smaller parties. It is no secret that the BJP has been working behind the scenes for the merger of the AIADMK factions so it is assured of the support the united party in the presidential election.

Though the opposition maintain that they will make every effort to put up a fight, they admitted that their basic purpose is to put up a symbolic fight and showcase their combined strength, which could well set the stage for a broad front of like-minded parties in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. “We realise we don’t have the numbers to get our candidate elected but the idea is to put up a united fight. This can then open doors for further consultations among opposition parties before the next Lok Sabha elections,” remarked JD(U) spokesperson KC Tyagi.

When the Congress was the dominant political force, Tyagi recalled, opposition parties had come together on several occasions to fight against the official presidential candidate. “It was a symbolic fight…we were not contesting to win the election,” he added.

Stating that the Presidential election could set the stage for larger opposition unity, Tyagi said Sonia Gandhi should build a coalition of like-minded parties as she had done in 2004 first for the coming assembly polls and for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

A trump card?

Opposition leaders believe that they made a good beginning in the recently-concluded budget session of Parliament when they all united to submit a petition to President Pranab Mukherjee about the alleged tampering of electronic voting machines and a host of other issues. Mayawati’s BSP took the initiative in this case and other political parties supported her even though some of them were privately not convinced that the EVMs had been tampered with.

While the opposition’s objective is to see that their coordination is not confined to Parliament alone, its efforts to forge a united front for the Presidential election may well be thwarted if the BJP picks a candidate who will be difficult to oppose. For instance, when former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee zeroed in on scientist APJ Abdul Kalam for the president’s post in 2002, political compulsions forced the Congress to support the BJP leader’s choice. For his part, Vajpayee was forced to find a candidate who would be readily accepted by all political parties as the BJP and its allies did not have the numbers to get their candidate elected on their own strength. The BJP needed the opposition to be on board.

This time round, there is no compulsion on Prime Minister Narendra Modi to seek the opposition’s support but he may just pull a rabbit out of the hat only to unsettle his political rivals and to deny them an opportunity to put up a united fight. In fact, the manner in which corruption cases against opposition leaders have picked up speed after the BJP’s high score in the recent assembly polls, is meant to be a message to them that he means business.

Alternatively, Modi could make the opposition’s task easy if he chooses a hardliner as the ruling alliance’s candidate.