Meira Kumar, the joint opposition candidate for the President, may not make it to Rashtrapati Bhavan in July 2017, given the way the numbers are stacked in favour of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance nominee Ram Nath Kovind. But could she emerge as the prime ministerial candidate of the unified opposition in 2019?

This possibility may seem highly speculative – and premature – at this stage. Admittedly, there are two years to next general elections, and a lot of water will go down the Ganga in this period. Besides, we are looking not at one party taking a decision, but a plethora of groups, big and small, with each one having its own agenda – and politics – which the choice of the leader can help or hinder.

It is not as if the Opposition grouping is like a monolithic entity, as the Bharatiya Janata Party is today, under a strong leader Narendra Modi, where his writ is accepted without demur, as has happened with the candidature of Kovind.

In fact, the Congress did not brook a delay of even a few hours in announcing the agreement on Meira Kumar, lest some of the parties, who were seen as fence sitters get second thoughts. Sharad Pawar was for waiting till Friday, when he was scheduled to lead a delegation to see the prime minister on the farmers’ problems on Friday. The Nationalist Congress Party leader Praful Patel had said last week that while his party’s support in the presidential election had been sought by the NDA, they were yet to be approached by the United Progressive Alliance leadership on a specific name. Mayawati had also indicated her positive response to Kovind’s candidature – unless, as she put it, the Opposition also fielded a Dalit, which they have done.

Dalit vs Dalit

The Congress made the announcement knowing that the BJP would get to work on several parties in the opposition. The Nationalist Congress Party, Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party and Trinamool Congress Party, about whom there were doubts, all came on board. Nitish Kumar and his Janata Dal (United) have remained firm in their proclaimed support to Kovind. The opposition phalanx of parties backing Meira Kumar is not as formidable as it might have been had the Janata Dal (United) stayed on board, even though there was little chance of victory. But then, There is an irony to the situation as it was Nitish Kumar who had first spurred on Sonia Gandhi to take the initiative to evolve a consensual name from the Opposition side for the presidency.

Despite the frailty of the Opposition lineup, but because they are all at the receiving end of the BJP’s rise at their expense, the possibility of Meira Kumar leading the opposition group in 2019 is an idea worth looking at. For the simple reason that she is a Dalit, belonging to the dominant Jatav caste, she is a woman and women are increasingly emerging as a political constituency with a voice. And she belongs to the largest Opposition party in the country, the Indian National Congress, whose member would be a natural claimant to lead any coalition. Besides, she has had long and varied experience in politics, in Parliament as the Lok Sabha Speaker during Congress-led United Progressive Alliance rule, and of administration in Union government, and a training in the foreign service.

While a Presidential poll is not a direct election by the people, but an indirect contest involving the MPs and MLAs, and therefore a Dalit versus Dalit face off to choose the first citizen of the country, has only symbolic value. And yet, the Dalit factor is going to determine the fortunes of both the ruling side as well as the opposition parties in the months to come. A growing Dalit consciousness is driving political decisionmaking, more than in the past. It is significant that the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duo opted for a Dalit presidential candidate, rather than an Adivasi whom they were supposedly considering, to begin with.

The Dalit factor

The reason is not far to seek. Though the Dalits had gravitated towards Modi in 2014, as also in the 2017 Uttar Pradesh elections – these were more the non-Jatav communities, to which Ram Nath Kovind also belongs – there has been restlessness growing amongst them after the violence in Una, Saharanpur, Haryana and the Rohith Vemula suicide. This is so particularly among the educated Dalits, which is why the BJP leadership wanted to try and undo the damage, even if symbolically. If the Dalits, particularly the Jatavs – Meira Kumar, like Mayawati, belongs to this group – as a category were to support the Opposition, along with the Muslims, it could spell trouble for the ruling combine in 2019 and even before that in the states going to the polls in 2017 and 2018. In Uttar Pradesh, the Dalit-Muslim combination adds up to 34% of the vote. Like the Minorities, the Dalits have also been adversely affected by the cattle notification and the beef politics pursued by the BJP in recent months. The Mahars of Maharashtra, most of them converts to Buddhism, who were with Modi, are also worried about the hard-Hindutva overtones in the BJP’s aggressive politics.

The Gandhi factor

There is, however, a flip side to the Meira Kumar-for- prime minister story.

Given the various contenders for the top post, and bitter history among many of the opposition leaders, it is not too difficult to think of a consensus emerging around a qualified Dalit backed by the Congress. The question, however, is whether the Congress would back her. It will mean Sonia Gandhi agreeing to her name, thus ruling out the Gandhi-Nehru family for the top job in 2019. Of course, this has been done in the past – in 1991 when PV Narasimha Rao was chosen, and then again in 2004 and in 2009 when it was Manmohan Singh who was elevated to the top position. Of course, the mood in the country today is for a non-Nehru- Gandhi person to lead the Congress, and in the absence of anyone suitable on the opposite side, Meira Kumar’s qualifications, experience and Dalit background may go down well with people looking for an alternative. But what, then, happens to Rahul Gandhi and his future political prospects? Would Sonia Gandhi be able take these hard decisions?

Besides, Kumar being a Dalit and a woman, there will always be the problem of replacing her with someone else, if it came to that in the future, were such an eventuality to arise in any case. But then politicians think many steps ahead into the future when it comes to their survival. There was obviously some reservation over Kumar’s name when the 18 political parties that met to consider a joint candidate for president decided not to finalise a name but wait till the BJP had come out with its own candidate. Otherwise, Meira Kumar was an obvious choice, not because she would take the opposition to victory, but from the point of view of pursuing the Congress politics – and indeed that of the opposition. Rahul Gandhi had repeatedly focussed on the BJP’s ill treatment of Dalits. Had her name been announced earlier, perhaps Nitish Kumar would have stayed with the rest of the Opposition, particularly as she belongs to Bihar.

The pro-Meira Kumar 17-party Opposition group, has isolated Nitish Kumar from the rest of the opposition, and comes as setback for him. So far, with his impeccable credentials for probity in governance, he was seen as the only possible candidate who could have led a grand alliance of the Opposition against Modi, though there were many ifs and buts in that story. Of course, Nitish Kumar has been positioning himself differently from the rest of the Opposition parties, though that does not mean that he is about to jump into bed with Modi. He did not want to be seen to be opposing an increasingly popular Modi for the sake of opposing him, thereby coming across as a constructive leader . But this last decision of Nitish Kumar has reinforced suspicions amongst opposition groups about what he is about – and where he is headed.