Yashwant Sinha, former Union minister in the Atal Behari Vajpayee-led NDA government and bitter critic of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, will be the candidate of over a dozen opposition parties against whoever the ruling BJP-led NDA coalition fields for the July 18 presidential polls.
Hours after the Opposition picked Sinha, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance chose former Jharkhand governor and tribal leader Droupadi Murmu as the candidate for Presidential polls.
Sinha’s candidature was finalised “unanimously” at a meeting of various opposition parties called by NCP chief Sharad Pawar in Delhi on Tuesday (June 21). Leaders of the Congress, NCP, Trinamool Congress, CPM, CPI, RJD, DMK, AIMIM, National Conference, AIUDF and the SP were present at the meeting. A stamp of approval for Sinha’s candidature, sources said, had also been received from outfits such as the RLD, PDP and the Shiv Sena, that is currently busy fending off a rebellion within its legislative party in Maharashtra that threatens to topple the Uddhav Thackeray-led MVA government.
Sources told The Federal that Banerjee and Pawar had both been pushing for Sinha’s candidature ever since other probable candidates – including Pawar himself, former J&K CM Farooq Abdullah and former Bengal governor Gopalkrishna Gandhi – bowed out of the race. However, the Congress and the Left Parties were adamant that Sinha quit the Trinamool before his candidature is officially endorsed by the Opposition.
The 84-year-old Sinha, who was appointed vice-president of the Trinamool soon after he joined the party in March last year, fulfilled that pre-condition on Tuesday morning.
“I am grateful to Mamataji for the honour and prestige she bestowed on me in the TMC. Now a time has come when for a larger national cause I must step aside from the party to work for greater opposition unity. I am sure she approves of the step,” Sinha tweeted, hours before the opposition leaders met at Pawar’s Delhi residence.
Pawar said Sinha will be filing his nomination for the election on June 27. Congress MP Jairam Ramesh, who read out the Opposition’s resolution endorsing Sinha said, “in his long and distinguished career in public life, Sinha has served the nation in various capacities – as an able administrator, accomplished parliamentarian and acclaimed Union minister of finance and external affairs. He is eminently qualified to uphold secular and democratic character of the Indian Republic and its constitutional values.”
The BJP, which had authorised party chief JP Nadda and Union defence minister Rajnath Singh to discuss with its allies and the opposition parties the prospect of fielding a common candidate for President, is likely to declare its nominee on Wednesday (June 22).
Against stacked odds
In the 4,809-member electoral college – comprising 776 MPs and 4033 MLAs with total value of votes pegged at 10,86,431 points – that will pick President Ramnath Kovind’s successor, the odds are stacked against Sinha. The BJP-led NDA coalition already holds a formidable 48.9 per cent share in the electoral college and is confident that the miniscule deficit of around 20,000 electoral points to cross the 50 per cent vote share mark will be covered with support from regional outfits such as YS Jagan Mohan Reddy’s YSR Congress (YSRCP) and Naveen Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal (BJD).
The presidential contest, thus, is high on symbolism wherein the Opposition hopes to primarily achieve three goals. First, the Opposition doesn’t want to give a walkover to the BJP-backed candidate. Second, the Opposition hopes to turn the contest into an ideological one by insisting that its candidate represents the true essence of democratic and constitutional values as opposed to the autocratic regime of Narendra Modi’s BJP. Third, the Opposition wants to reduce the victory margin of the BJP-backed nominee from the 3.34 lakh vote lead that President Kovind clocked over the Opposition-backed Meira Kumar back in 2017.
With Sinha in the fray, the Opposition has ticked off its first two objectives. The last one now will be a test for both Sinha and the opposition parties backing him. As is the norm, the Opposition is expected to finalise a panel that will steer Sinha’s presidential campaign and reach out to other outfits such as the BJD, TRS, YSRCP, AIADMK, AAP, JD (U) and the JD (S), for their support.
Multiple leaders in the Opposition bloc now backing Sinha told The Federal that the “best candidate” to draw support from regional parties that are not formally part of either the NDA or the UPA grouping would have been Pawar. However, the Maratha strongman, who is known to enjoy wide bipartisan support, was himself a hurdle to the Opposition’s plans.
Pawar’s last-minute refusal
A veteran opposition leader, who was among the leaders in touch with the NCP chief, said Pawar, after keeping opposition parties hopeful for several weeks of his willingness to enter the contest, bowed out of the race last week insisting that he wished to remain in “active politics”. Why Pawar did not express his unwillingness to contest when the subject was first broached with him over a month ago is typical of intrigues political leaders have come to expect of the Maratha strongman but have evidently learned nothing from.
Curiously, Pawar’s refusal also coincides with fresh tumult in Maharashtra politics. The recently concluded biennial polls for Rajya Sabha and the state’s legislative council both witnessed cross-voting in favour of the BJP by members of the Shiv Sena-NCP-Congress, though Pawar succeeded in keeping his flock of NCP MLAs together.
On Tuesday, while Pawar, who outfoxed Amit Shah and stitched together the MVA coalition, was busy holding parleys for the presidential candidate in Delhi, MLAs from the Shiv Sena rebelled against Thackeray and moved from Maharashtra to a hotel in Gujarat’s Surat. There are also several cases pending investigations by central agencies against members of the Pawar clan, particularly his nephew and Maharashtra deputy CM Ajit Pawar. Whether any of this is linked to Pawar’s refusal to enter the Presidential contest, of course, is anybody’s guess.
After Pawar said no to the opposition parties, the same offer was made to Farooq Abdullah. Like Pawar, Abdullah too turned it down, also making it clear that he wants to continue serving his people through active politics.
The years since abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir have been particularly challenging for Abdullah, his son Omar Abdullah and their National Conference. The father-son duo, like most other opposition leaders in the Kashmir Valley, had spent months under house arrest. The Abdullahs too have been the subject of investigation by various agencies and these cases continue to hang over their heads like the sword of Damocles. Besides, with the Centre hinting that it will hold the long-due assembly in J&K by the end of this year following the controversial delimitation exercise, the 84-year-old Abdullah Sr, perhaps, is hopeful that his political career, that has been hanging in suspended animation much like his beloved Kashmir, will get a renewed fillip soon.
As for Gopalkrishna Gandhi, the other probable candidate approached after the refusal by Pawar and Abdullah, sources said the idea of him emerging as a consensus candidate was “dead on arrival,” despite the Left Front’s grand idea of fielding Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson and canvassing for him on the ideologically evocative ‘Gandhi versus Godse’ plank. However, sources said there was never much hope of getting support across the board from sundry opposition parties for the 77-year-old former diplomat who had been unsuccessful as the Opposition’s candidate in the vice-presidential polls of 2017 against Venkaiah Naidu.
A vocal critic of Modi
Sinha, meanwhile, had reportedly been sounded off by Mamata Banerjee of his prospects as a presidential candidate around the same time that the offer was first made by her to Pawar. Though Sinha was a leading figure of the BJP in the Atal-Advani era, including the period that saw the post-Godhra communal carnage in Gujarat and the subsequent meteoric rise of Modi in the saffron party, the bureaucrat-turned-politician has, for a better part of the past eight years, been a vocal critic of the Modi-Shah duo.
Along with Arun Shourie, another colleague from the Atal-Advani era of BJP who had a similar falling out with Modi post 2014, Sinha has stridently spoken out against alleged assaults on democracy and constitutional values under the current regime. He was also a key petitioner before the Supreme Court in the Rafale case against the Centre and continues to be a petitioner in some other matters that have challenged various policies of the Modi government.
Getting the opposition parties to unanimously back Sinha, however, was no cake walk. The Congress and the Left parties were hesitant in backing him while he remained a Trinamool office bearer; a reservation that was evidently not expressed by these parties while backing Pawar or Abdullah, who too held positions in their respective parties. Sinha and the Congress are also known to share a rocky relationship.
Though always cordial, Sinha has been a bitter critic of the Gandhi family too – right from the time of Indira Gandhi during whose premiership he quit the Indian Administrative Services to enter electoral politics. During the UPA days, as a leading figure of the BJP-led Opposition, Sinha’s interventions in the Lok Sabha often led to direct confrontations between him and Sonia Gandhi.
More recently, Sinha had also made a bid – like Mamata and K Chandrasekhar Rao – to bring various opposition leaders together against Modi’s BJP. Though he had insisted that his efforts were for putting up a social and not electoral challenge to the BJP, what had riled some in the Congress was that Sinha was ostensibly getting support from Congress members such as Manish Tewari, Vivek Tankha and Kapil Sibal (all members of the so-called G-23; Sibal is no longer with the Congress).
Which way will AAP and Nitish go?
Sinha, of course, knows his limitations in the forthcoming contest and is aware of the defeat that awaits him. What he and the parties backing him are hoping with his candidature is to narrow the contest. Though not remotely as personal as Pawar’s, Sinha does share a good rapport with some opposition party leaders, including JD (S) chief HD Deve Gowda, TRS chief K Chandrasekhar Rao, AAP’s Sanjay Singh and Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar. These equations are likely to come in handy when Sinha starts his presidential campaign. If he does succeed in getting an assurance of support from each of these parties, he could end up narrowing the margin of defeat that Meira Kumar had recorded in 2017.
Of particular significance would be the support of AAP and Nitish Kumar. The AAP has, so far, stayed away from the opposition’s presidential poll exercise. But, sources said, party MP Sanjay Singh has already been tapped to convince Arvind Kejriwal of backing Sinha. With an increased presence in the electoral college due to its Punjab victory, the AAP can contribute a sizeable chunk of votes to Sinha’s kitty.
Sinha’s candidature also gives Nitish Kumar another reason to slight the BJP. The presidential polls are being held at a time when the Bihar chief minister has been routinely striking discordant notes against the BJP, keeping rumour mills busy with speculation of his imminent exit from the NDA once again. If Kumar indeed backs Sinha, invoking personal relations and Bihari pride, the BJP will stare at a greater deficit of votes for its candidate in the electoral college.