Upset with Bihar Chief Minister and Janata Dal (United) leader Nitish Kumar for his decision to support the National Democratic Alliance’s Presidential candidate Ram Nath Kovind, his colleagues in the Opposition sought to get back at him on Thursday.

In a clear attempt to embarrass Nitish Kumar, Opposition parties deliberately picked Meira Kumar, former Lok Sabha Speaker and daughter of well-known Dalit leader Jagjivan Ram, as their candidate for next month’s Presidential election.

Although Meira Kumar’s career in the foreign service and public life were cited as the chief reasons for picking her, what clinched matters in her favour was the fact that she is a Dalit and a “Bihar ki beti”, which would make it difficult for Nitish Kumar to explain his decision to back the nominee of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance.

“There is no doubt Meira Kumar has an impressive resume and she is a well recognised face but finally it was the Bihar factor which went in her favour,” explained a senior opposition leader.

Three candidates proposed

At a meeting of Opposition parites in Delhi on Thursday to decide on a joint Presidential candidate, Nationalist Congress Party leader Sharad Pawar, who spoke soon after Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s brief opening remarks, placed three names on the table former Maharashtra chief minister Sushi Kumar Shinde, former Planning Commission member Balchander Mungekar and Meira Kumar.

However, Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Lalu Prasad Yadav pre-empted any lengthy discussion when he intervened to declare that Meira Kumar was the best choice. The leaders of the 17 parties present at the meeting unanimously endorsed her candidature.

Yadav lost no time in drawing attention the fact Meira Kumar hails from his home state and went on to describe her as a “Bihar ki beti”. Speaking to media persons after the meeting, he remarked that there had been an error of judgment by Nitish Kumar and that he would appeal to him to change his stand.

While Meira Kumar and former governor and diplomat Gopal Gandhi had been under consideration since the Opposition parties decided a few weeks ago to field a joint candidate in the Presidential election, it was compelled to name a Dalit after the BJP picked Ram Nath Kovind, a Mahadalit from Uttar Pradesh, as its candidate for the top constitutional post. A section of the Opposition felt it would not be appropriate to pit a Dalit against a Dalit merely to score political points, but eventually there was all-round agreement on Meira Kumar’s name.

Opposition leaders representing 17 parties met in Delhi on Thursday to decide on a joint Presidential candidate.

Opposition leaders maintained that after the BJP fielded a Dalit, they had no choice but to follow suit. Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati had expressed her reservations about voting against Kovind shortly after his candidature was announced, but added that she could be persuaded to support an Opposition candidate provided it was a more popular Dalit name. Bahujan Samaj Party leader Satish Mishra, who attended the Thursday meeting, gave his party’s consent to Meira Kumar.

The main agenda of the Thursday meeting was to pick a joint candidate but the gathering was also meant to underline that the Opposition was united despite Nitish Kumar’s decision to support the BJP candidate. Congress managers worked overtime to see that all the other Opposition parties were represented at this meeting. Consequently, 17 Opposition parties, including Rashtriya Lok Dal leader Ajit Singh, lined up for the deliberations.

Samajwadi Party leader Ram Gopal Yadav, Omar Abdullah of the National Conference, Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Sitaram Yechury, Communist Party of India leader D Raja, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader Kanimozhi and Derek O’Brien of the Trinamool Congress were among those who participated in the deliberations. When Nitish Kumar decided to extend support to the Opposition candidate earlier this week, detractors had been quick to write off the Opposition’s efforts to forge a united front. It was, therefore, imperative for the Congress to put up a good show and send out a clear message to their political opponents as well as to Nitish Kumar that they had failed to create a wedge in their ranks.

Though the Opposition parties are well aware that the numbers in the Presidential race do not favour them, they nevertheless decided to field a common candidate to make a political statement. This symbolic fight by a united Opposition was also meant to set the stage for the formation of a secular anti-BJP alliance with an eye on the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. The Presidential election was being viewed as the first test of Opposition unity. The Thursday meeting was a brave attempt by a demoralised Opposition to demonstrate that it has not failed this test.

On his part, Nitish Kumar has his own calculations for supporting the BJP candidate. Relations between Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad Yadav have been deteriorating for some months now and could worsen in the coming days. The alliance in Bihar between the Janata Dal (United) and the Rashtriya Janata Dal may become untenable in view of the corruption charges against the Lalu Prasad and his family. In such a scenario, Nitish Kumar will need new friends to bail out his government, which is dependent on the support of the Rashtriya Janata Dal. The BJP is waiting to rescue Nitish Kumar. Not only will his return strengthen the National Democratic Alliance and shore up its numbers, it will also weaken the Opposition.