The Opposition faces the possibility of an erosion in its ranks after the Bharatiya Janata Party picked Bihar governor Ram Nath Kovind, a Dalit, as the Presidential nominee of its National Democratic Alliance.

Caught off-guard by the BJP’s surprise announcement on Monday, several Opposition parties were clearly in a fix. On one hand, they were finding it difficult to reject the official choice for fear of being branded anti-Dalit. On the other, they run the risk of playing spoiler and breaking Opposition unity if they decide to back Kovind, especially as the Presidential election was being viewed as the first step towards the formation of a broader secular anti-BJP coalition of like-minded parties.

The Opposition parties are meeting in Delhi on Thursday to take a final call on their next course of action. Going by precedents, a battle may still be on hand but it will, at best, be a half-hearted battle as the BJP has clearly taken the sting out from the contest by picking Kovind.

Not only is the nominee of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance a Dalit, he also comes from a humble background and is low-key and non-controversial. Most importantly, he is not a hardcore member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the BJP’s ideological mentor. As an Opposition leader put it, “He is not a fanatic like Yogi or Togadia.” Consequently, most Opposition parties were unable to fault the ruling party’s choice on Monday except to complain about the “unilateral” manner in which the BJP had made the announcement.

Government’s ‘sweet will’

Senior Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad , for instance, refrained from commenting on the “merits and demerits” of the BJP candidate. He did, however, complain about the manner in which the BJP had picked Kovind. “ I think each political party of the Opposition was given to understand that before the final decision was taken, they woud be taken in to confidence and the names would be discussed with them but that has not happened,” Azad said. “Well, this is the sweet will of the NDA government.”

On the other hand, Bihar chief minister and Janata Dal (United) president Nitish Kumar and Bahujan Samaj Party Mayawati came closest to endorsing Kovind’s candidature while the Samajwadi Party will have problems in voting against a Dalit from Uttar Pradesh.

Mayawati maintained that if the Opposition failed to field a popular Dalit candidate, her party will find it difficult to oppose Kovind. Having suffered a humiliating defeat in the last Lok Sabha and Uttar Pradesh assembly polls, Mayawati can ill-afford to vote against a Dalit leader, especially as her hold on scheduled caste voters has slackened considerably in recent years. The Bahujan Samaj Party is threatened by the rise of a new Dalit outfit, the Bhim Army, while the BJP is attempting to moving ahead to shore up its support among the Dalits and backward classes. Kovind’s candidature is part of the BJP’s gameplan to woo Dalits with an eye on the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.

Mayawati’s dilemma

While Mayawati is understandably wary of going against the BJP candidate, Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar is also in the same boat. Reacting positively to the BJP’s choice, Kumar called on Kovind, who is currently Bihar governor, to congratulate him. He was also all praise for Kovind’s work as governor. He was, however, non-committal about his party’s support for the NDA Presidential nominee. In Delhi, Janata Dal (United) spokesperson KC Tyagi declared, “Opposition unity is our top priority…we will not do anything to jeopardise it.”

But Janata Dal (United) leaders admitted that Kovind’s candidature has put them in a dilemma. “It is difficult for us to reject a Dalit and a governor who has done excellent work in the state,” remarked a senior party leader.

However, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) is determined to ensure the Opposition fields a common candidate for a symbolic political fight.

Suitable candidate

Once the Opposition parties take a formal decision to go ahead with a contest, the next big challenge they face is to find a suitable candidate. It is being suggested that the Opposition should also field a Dalit so that they are not accused of voting against a scheduled caste candidate. Former Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar’s name has been suggested. But some Opposition leaders are not in favour of pitting a “Dalit against a Dalit” as it would appear that they are deliberately creating divisions among the scheduled castes merely for political gain. “If we have to field a Dalit, then what is wrong with supporting Kovind,” remarked a senior Congress leader.

While all these issues will be thrashed out over the next few days, the BJP’s choice and the manner in which it strung along its opponents by going through the motions of consulting them has led to a lot of churning in the Opposition camp. Several Congress leaders were furious that the Opposition failed to articulate its position clearly before the BJP approached them for consultations, thereby conceding this round to them. They said that instead of waiting for the BJP to forge a consensus, the Opposition should have preempted it by naming its candidate first. “There was no clarity in our strategy,” said a senior Opposition leader. “Now when we name our candidate, it will appear as if we are only reacting to the BJP’s nominee.”