New Delhi: Bihar Governor Ram Nath Kovind was set to be India's 14th President with the BJP announcing the little-known Dalit activist as its nominee for the country's top constitutional job on Monday. If elected, which appears to be a certainty, the 71- year-old former lawyer would be only the second Dalit to occupy the Rashtrapati Bhavan after K R Narayanan.
In a surprise move, the BJP announced that the low-profile Kovind was the National Democratic Alliance's presidential candidate for the July 17 poll. "He was born in a poor family, comes from the Dalit community and has long struggled for the rights of the weaker sections.
He has always been associated with the poor, backwards and Dalits... I am hopeful that there will be a consensus on his name," BJP president Amit Shah said at a press conference here.
Kovind's name has made fissures in the Congress-led Opposition ranks with BSP chief Mayawati and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar indicating that they would support Kovind's candidature.
Many political parties will find it difficult to oppose a prominent Dalit leader due to political equations. This choice will also be accepted by the Dalit community, which is an important part of the electorate in major Indian states.
However, consensus on Kovind, who headed the BJP's Dalit Morcha, looked elusive with several Opposition parties, including the Congress, unwilling to back him, though some others were more guarded in their response.
Confident in the party's choice of a Dalit candidate, who had rarely ruffled any feathers during his years in politics, Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted, "I am sure Shri Ram Nath Kovind will make an exceptional President & continue to be a strong voice for the poor, downtrodden & marginalised."
Kovind, who flew to Delhi from Patna after the announcement, said, "It's a duty, let's take it as such." The BJP's pick, a former two-time Rajya Sabha MP, known more as a Dalit champion than a Hindutva ideologue, had not figured in the names that were doing the rounds.
The rumour mills had put BJP veterans L K Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi and Jharkhand Governor Draupadi Murmu as amongst the probables for the President.
Modi also spoke to Congress chief Sonia Gandhi and former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to seek their support for Kovind, whose election seems a virtual certainty given the NDA's numbers in Parliament and Assembly.
An Opposition leader said they might field former Congress minister and LS Speaker Meira Kumar, also a Dalit, as their candidate. However, there were also those in the Opposition who kept their options open.
Shiv Sena, a BJP ally which has played hot and cold over supporting it on the presidential candidate, said it would take a call soon. But other parties like the BJD, TRS, which is in power in Telangana, were unambiguous in their support. YSRCP, an Opposition party in Andhra Pradesh, has already offered its support. The BJP is also hopeful of support from the AIADMK, which is in power Tamil Nadu.
By announcing Kovind's name as NDA presidential candidate, Narendra Modi and Amit Shah have yet again reminded that they are a master of surprises, expect the unexpected from them. They have proved that all the media speculations and the so called "informed" private talks among the senior leaders and ministers to be wrong after all Kovind's name was nowhere on the radar when speculations were rife.
Not just the name of the presidential candidate, the timing of the announcement too contained an element of surprise. Among the party circles, it was believed that the announcement would be made on 22 June, a day before the presidential candidate was expected to file nomination papers, as the prime minister is supposed to leave for his US trip on 24 June.
Moreover, Kovind's proposed elevation to the Rashtrapati Bhawan reaffirms that unlike the dynastic parties, in BJP, anyone can rise to the highest position, irrespective of his/her social background. A chaiwala can become a Prime Minister, an ordinary worker can rise to the post of the party president and an unsung Dalit can be considered for the post of the President.
Besides, almost all other BJP allies have announced their support to Kovind with LJP chief Ram Vilas Paswan calling it a "political masterstroke". The electoral college, which elects the President through the system of proportional representation, comprises elected MPs and members of state legislative Assemblies -- a total of 4,896 voters including 4,120 MLAs and 776 elected MPs.
The total strength of the electoral college is 10,98,903. The NDA is short of majority by barely 20,000 votes but with several non-NDA parties pledging their support to its candidate, the ruling block now enjoys a comfortable majority.