Opposition divided as India votes for ‘untouchable’ President

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Ram Nath Kovind. Photo: Reuters / Adnan Abidi

India’s presidential election on Monday exposed a divided opposition, with their choice of Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson, Gopalkrishna Gandhi, as vice-presidential candidate, also stirring debate over his eligibility.

Over 4,890 lawmakers cast their votes for a new president amid reports that some opposition leaders – from Trinamool Congress, the Nationalist Congress Party, the Samajwadi Party and the Bhahujan Samaj Party – may have cross-voted for the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) candidate Ram Nath Kovind. The NDA is led by the nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

At least one opposition lawmaker in Tripura state expressed reservations about voting for the United Progressive Alliance’s (UPA) candidate, Meira Kumar. The UPA is led by India’s grand old Congress party.

The counting of votes takes place on July 20. If cross-voting has taken place as alleged, it will be a blow to the opposition’s plan to form a grand new coalition ahead of 2019 general elections. It will also be a snub to Congress party boss Sonia Gandhi, who has depicted the presidential poll as a conscience vote in a battle between the democratic values of the UPA and the tribal politics of the NDA government.

In the run-up to Monday’s poll, the UPA attacked the NDA for choosing a candidate like Kovind with such a hardline RSS-BJP background. Such a man, if elected, will not be fair to people belonging to other communities, they argued

Kovind’s expected ascent to the highest public office will be the first by a leader who started out with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), or National Volunteers’ Association, a Hindu nationalist organization that is the parent group of the BJP and its affiliates.

Although India’s presidential elections are not supposed to be fought on political lines, it is a different story every time. The UPA currently wants to bounce back after its humiliating defeat in Uttar Pradesh (UP) assembly elections in March this year. However, it lost the advantage by delaying the announcement of its presidential candidate – it was more concerned about who its rivals would be fielding as candidate.

The NDA made a smart move by naming a dalit (or “untouchable”), Kovind, from UP, as its candidate. This dashed opposition hopes for a cakewalk if, for instance, the NDA had fielded a leader like Mohan Bhagwat, of the RSS, as its candidate.

The NDA picked a dalit candidate because public anger had been mounting over attacks against Muslims by cow vigilantes in BJP-ruled UP. Protests have been staged over suicides of dalit students on university campuses.

In 2002, the NDA sprang a similar surprise by naming the late rocket scientist APJ Abdul Kalaam as its presidential candidate to douse the fires sparked by Hindu-Muslim riots in Gujarat that year.

When the NDA announced Kovind as its presidential choice last month, the UPA hurriedly announced the candidature of Kumar, daughter of the late dalit leader Jagjivan Ram. If Kumar had been the UPA’s ideal candidate, why did the decision come so late?

Whoever wins, India is going to get a President from the country’s underprivileged community and he or she will be tasked with protecting the Constitution and laws of the land.

Gopalkrishna was attacked by the Hindu party Shiv Sena for having tried to save Yakub Memon, one of those accused in the 1993 Mumbai blasts case, from the gallows

While presidents are said to be above politics and are expected to behave in a non-partisan way, in practice they have helped successive federal governments to impose “governor’s rule” in states ruled by rivals.

In the run-up to Monday’s poll, the UPA attacked the NDA for choosing a candidate like Kovind with such a hardline RSS-BJP background. Such a man, if elected, will not be fair to people belonging to other communities, they argued.

Such arguments are relevant but as the political battle for power intensifies, all parties tend to vacate the high moral ground and pick presidents who toe their line. One can only hope the new president works for the well-being of the nation and not only for the party which nominated him or her.

The UPA’s choice of vice-presidential candidate, Gopalkrishna Gandhi, became the subject of fiery debate on Monday. Gopalkrishna was attacked by the Hindu party Shiv Sena for having tried to save Yakub Memon, one of those accused in the 1993 Mumbai blasts case, from the gallows.

The NDA named a senior cabinet member, Venkaiah Naidu, as its vice-presidential candidate late on Monday.

The vice-presidential election will take place on August 5.

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