The choice of Meira Kumar who is from Bihar and a Jatav Dalit has certainly put Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar in a tight spot politically which was the intent of Sonia Gandhi and RJD chief, Lalu Yadav, who are upset with Nitish Kumar's "defection" in saying his party will vote for Kovind.
Sources say that the opposition was seething at how Nitish Kumar virtually disowned the "maha-gatbandhan" which he helped deliver into being two months ago. Lalu Prasad rubbed it in, saying triumphantly "Bihar Ki Beti, Babu, Jagjivan Ram Ki Beti (she is both Bihar's Daughter and Jagjivan Ram's daughter). Nitish Kumar had earlier told Sonia Gandhi that the entire opposition would have to sink their differences and unite against Narendra Modi, who post his grand UP win could not be contained by individual leaders and parties.
Since Nitish Kumar has a huge following among Bihar's women after his prohibition move, his not supporting Meira Kumar will certainly create some trouble even in his own party, the JDU.
Meira Kumar's choice has spared Mayawati's blushes she has rushed to offer her support to her fellow woman candidate and Jatav Dalit.
Nitish Kumar, who is an extremely shrewd leader, is not likely to have second thoughts about his support for Kovind. Sources in his camp say he was utterly disillusioned by the "pointless meetings" held by the opposition. "You people cannot even decide on a name. We just keep having meetings. If we wanted an election, we should have announced a name before the BJP. This is not Lucknow where you exhibit manners and grace by saying first, you go ahead," Nitish Kumar apparently told senior Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad who made a desperate trip to see him in Patna at a local congress Iftar on Tuesday evening.
Nitish Kumar understood the Sonia Gandhi-Lalu plan was to embarrass him and he refused to attend today's meet after proactively offering Kovind support. The Bihar Chief Minister can now claim that the opposition's choice was made too late and that he had already committed support by the time Meira Kumar was decided.
But it's much more complicated then just a symbolic contest for President. Nitish Kumar seems fed up of Lalu, the errant ally, and is looking to maneuver to a safer political space. He is hugely uncomfortable with the lengthening list of corruption cases of the Yadav clan which he feels are affecting his credibility. Assured of the BJP's support in Bihar, he can afford to up the ante against Yadav.
The BJP, who has the numbers to win the Presidential election and aced the early contest by picking the non-Jatav Kovind from the Kori Samaj sub-caste, has first-mover advantage. BJP leaders dismissed Meira Kumar's name as predictable saying that all that the unimaginative opposition had was a "dynastic Dalit", a clear me-too pick against their "meritorious Dalit" and this was the politics of "tokenism". Left unsaid was the fact that even their choice was clear tokenism and a bid to extend their foray into the huge vote-bank of the non-Jatav Dalits who seem to be viewing the BJP with increasing interest. By ensuring that the Muslims don't matter electorally in UP (not giving a single Muslim a ticket) despite their numbers, the BJP is now looking at making huge in-roads with the Dalits, specially the non-Jatavs, who are up for grabs with only tenuous links now to Mayawati, a Jatav.
While Kovind looks to be a shoo-in for President, the way the politics has unfolded has been instructive. Modi, Shah and the RSS ensured with their usual precision that the opposition was totally on the back foot; they also made a game attempt at splitting opposition unity and ensuring that Kovind, an ideological fellow traveler who would be no challenge to Modi, would be installed as President.
The opposition - well, worse played than expected. Despite the cries for unity, they could not agree on a name for far too long with huge bickering over the shortlist they came up with. Mamata Banerjee was clear she wanted the Mahatma's grandson, Gopal Gandhi. The Congress, never proactive, wanted to see what hand the BJP played. After Kovind was announced, Gopal Gandhi gracefully and quietly refused to contest. Meira Kumar's nomination seems like a tired card to play in what will be a token contest as the NDA has the numbers it needs.
What this shows is opposition unity is as loose as the BJP expected, with Nitish Kumar, one of the few credible faces in the opposition, publicly playing footsie with the BJP. While Nitish Kumar and Lalu Yadav may both insist that nothing has changed in the alliance in Bihar, the fact is that the Chief Minister's Kovind move has altered the situation irrevocably.
Nitish Kumar is bitter at the price he is paying in Bihar for allying with Lalu. Sources close to him say that in a month, the Presidential contest will be forgotten by the public but the image of the opposition in shambles will linger. Nitish Kumar is a curious mixture of a very rigid man unwilling to compromise on his image, yet willing to look away for "satta" (power), says a senior JDU leader who is quite peeved at him for the Kovind decision.
With only two years to go for the big 2019 fight, the opposition will need to really roll up its sleeves if it is serious about trying to challenge Amit Shah and Modi. Nitish Kumar has illustrated to the "Maha-gatbandhan" that there are no permanent enemies in politics. And also, you snooze, you lose.
(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)
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