The presidential election coming up in July has galvanised the Opposition parties into a state of unity. This has forced the Bharatiya Janata Party to look for extra votes if its National Democratic Alliance is to reach majority in the electoral college, comprising MPs and MLAs, that will elect the successor to President Pranab Mukherjee. In such a situation, the question that arises is: Will Prime Minister Narendra Modi opt for a confrontation by pressing for a hardcore Hindutva face for the post of president or will he project a candidate who could possibly dismantle the Opposition front?

Faced with a similar dilemma, the BJP’s first prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, had opted for the latter strategy. The decision to field APJ Abdul Kalam, a scientist and former head of the Defence Research and Development Organisation and a member of the minority community, in the presidential election of 2002 was a coup that shattered the threat of a united Opposition.

In fact, within days of Vajpayee proposing Kalam’s candidature, the People’s Front – mainly consisting of the Samajwadi Party and the Left parties – broke up. The issue created such a divide that Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav and his lieutenant Amar Singh walked out of a People’s Front meeting at the residence of Harkishan Singh Surjeet, the then general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

After the meeting, Communist Party of India general secretary AB Bardhan said, “Kalam is the NDA [National Democratic Alliance] candidate and we cannot support him in the prevailing situation.” Yadav, on the other hand, declared, “Dr Kalam is a very good choice for the president’s office. He is an able scientist, scholar and eminent person of great fame. He is not the candidate of the BJP, the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh], the Shiv Sena, the Congress or the Samajwadi Party.”

Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati also supported the candidature of Kalam, saying, “He represents classes that our party considers a part of the class that Dalits belong [to].”

With the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party crossing over to the side of the National Democratic Alliance, the Congress, which at that time was busy nurturing its ties with the Left, was caught in a dilemma. Supporting or rejecting Kalam’s candidature could mean choosing between minority and middle-class support and the Left’s backing in the next general elections, which were to be held two years from then.

While the Congress shared the Left’s apprehension of Kalam not being cut out for the country’s highest office, given his non-political background, it was unable to come to terms with a situation where it might be seen as opposing a national hero. In the end, the Congress, too, went against the Left and supported Kalam’s candidature. The feeble fight put up by the Left parties’ candidate, freedom fighter Lakshmi Sahgal, turned the presidential election into a cakewalk for Kalam.

Consensus versus confrontation

The situation is not the same this time round. The BJP is much more entrenched in Parliament and in a large number of state Assemblies. Besides, the National Democratic Alliance’s strength in the electoral college is only just slightly short of the majority. Nevertheless, a confrontation is fraught with risks. That is because there is no provision of a whip (one in charge of directing the vote in a House on party lines) in a presidential election and the members of the electoral college vote on the basis of their conscience. Also, keeping together all the constituents of the National Democratic Alliance, besides adding new ones to make up for the shortfall in votes, would not be an easy task.

In the last two presidential elections, for example, the Shiv Sena voted for the Congress’ nominees, opposing the National Democratic Alliance of which it is a part. That it would not dump the alliance for a third time is something the BJP can never be sure of. As it is, the Shiv Sena and the BJP have not been on the best of terms in recent days. A few weeks ago, the Sena even proposed the name of Sharad Pawar, head of the Nationalist Congress Party, for the post of president.

Pawar, along with Congress president Sonia Gandhi, has been working actively to consolidate the strength of the Opposition parties for the presidential election.

Opting for a new Kalam, one section of the BJP believes, would be the wisest course of action for Modi. Another section, however, argues that the prime minister should use the saffron party’s massive strength to place a hardcore Hindutva face in Rashtrapati Bhawan and complete the process of legitimising the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the BJP’s ideological parent, in politics.

The decision has to be taken by Modi alone. He has shaken the Opposition in the past and he could do so again. The Opposition would be left shattered if he forced a confrontation and succeeded. But if his candidate fails in the election, the resulting realignment of Opposition parties may have reverberations far beyond the presidential election and even affect the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.