The Opposition’s bid to put up a common candidate for the July 18 presidential elections appears to be in a disarray, and is also fast turning out to be a game of political one-upmanship.
The latest jolt to the unity bid came when their only remaining shortlisted candidate Gopalkrishna Gandhi declined the offer to contest on Monday (June 20), a day before leaders of 17 opposition parties are expected to meet in New Delhi to finalise their nominee.
The meeting was convened by NCP chief Sharad Pawar at the Parliament annexe at 2.30 pm on Tuesday. Hours before the scheduled huddle, Gandhi politely declined the offer to be in the race, requesting the Opposition camp to find a better candidate.
“Several esteemed leaders of the Opposition have done me the honour of thinking of me for the Opposition’s candidature in the upcoming elections for the highest office of Rashtrapati. I am most grateful to them. But having considered the matter deeply I see that the Opposition’s candidate should be one who will generate a national consensus and a national atmosphere beside Opposition unity,” he said in a statement.
“I feel there will be others who will do this far better than I. And so, I have requested the leaders to give the opportunity to such a person. May India get a President worthy of the office presaged by Rajaji as the last Governor General and inaugurated by Dr Rajendra Prasad as our first President,” said the 77-year-old grandson of Mahatma Gandhi.
The announcement came as a blow to the Opposition’s effort to turn the contest into an ideological battle between Gandhi versus Godse.
The Opposition will have to now look for a new candidate for the contest as their two other shortlisted nominees Pawar and National Conference patriarch Farooq Abdullah too had declined the offer. The non-BJP parties are now mulling former Union minister Yashwant Sinha as a possible joint candidate for the upcoming Presidential election, a senior Trinamool Congress (TMC) leader said on Monday.
Before Gandhi turned down the offer, sources in the Opposition camp, however said there were differences over his candidature. One of the constituents of the 17-party group, Shiv Sena, last week openly stated that both Abdullah and Gandhi were not heavyweight candidates.
After Pawar’s refusal, a TMC leader said, the chance of the Opposition making the presidential poll an evenly-fought contest became bleak.
“He (Pawar) has a wider acceptance among parties cutting across ruling and Opposition camps. We thought he had a fair chance of winning as he could influence the fence sitters such as Biju Janata Dal, Aam Aadmi Party, Akali Dal and others as well as some NDA partners to vote for him,” the TMC leader explained.
The candidate selection, however, is not the only challenge the Opposition camp is facing. Beneath the veneer of a show of unity, the camp is a divided house.
The TMC apparently is upset over the wording of Pawar’s invitation for Tuesday’s meeting, which did not have any mention about the “lead” the party supremo Mamata Banerjee took to assemble leaders of the 17 parties, at the national capital’s Constitution Club on July 15.
Banerjee will not attend Tuesday’s meeting citing a “pre-scheduled” engagement. Party sources said her nephew and party general secretary Abhishek Banerjee is likely to represent the TMC.
Senior Banerjee was miffed ever since her opening remarks explaining the need for the Opposition to unite to fight the BJP did not figure in the resolution adopted at the July 15 meeting.
Parties like the Congress and the DMK felt that the resolution should stick to President elections and should not mention about the harassment of Opposition leaders and other issues raised by Banerjee.
The Left parties were also miffed by the way Banerjee unilaterally convened the meeting and decided the date and venue without consulting others.
CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury had to clarify, before the party’s central committee, as to why it had to participate in the meeting convened by the TMC chief.
Congress is also unhappy that when its president Sonia Gandhi was already holding parleys with the Opposition for the joint meeting, Mamata Banerjee hijacked the initiative by inviting 22 Opposition leaders to the meeting.
She wanted to set the agenda for the 2024 Lok Sabha elections and project herself as the leader of the Opposition group by her unilateral announcement of the joint meeting, a Congress leader from Bengal alleged. He said the Opposition parties are just putting up a show of unity, despite their inherent differences, hoping against hope that they would get a magical glue to hold them together in their common battle against the BJP.
According to him, the Opposition lost the half battle when Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) AAP, TRS and the BJD skipped the Constitution Club meeting.
There is a fear that the attendance may be thinner on Tuesday.