NDA has edge in presidential polls, but opposition can test a joint front for 2024

Given Modi's style of secrecy, it is hard to predict the BJP's pick

PTI6_20_2019_000199B In the running: Prime Minister Narendra Modi with President Ram Nath Kovind. If the NDA is looking for a new presidential candidate, Vice President Venkaiah Naidu (centre) is also in contention | PTI

NUMBERS DICTATE CHOICES. In July 2002, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam became a bipartisan choice for president as the ruling Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led National Democratic Alliance did not have enough votes to get anyone from its ideological family elected. Fifteen years later, the NDA led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi was much better placed, yet it tried for a consensus pick.

The election would be politically significant as it would provide the anti-BJP parties an arena to test their affinity for an alliance ahead of the 2024 general elections.

Though there was no consensus, the NDA candidate Ram Nath Kovind got the support of friendly regional parties. This year, the NDA will again need support from regional parties to get its choice elected as the 15th president of India. It may make an effort towards consensus, though it is likely to be dismissed as tokenism by the opposition.

President Kovind will complete his tenure on July 24. A president who often insisted on following constitutional morality, Kovind has had a successful and controversy-free tenure, so far. He made 29 foreign visits till December and rejected all seven mercy petitions that came before him. The official website says that he has discharged his duties with “foresight and humility”.

Kovind was a surprise pick, but fit well into the BJP’s outreach to dalits. He was only the second dalit to occupy the post after K.R. Narayanan. There is already much discussion regarding whether Kovind will get the NDA’s backing for a second term. Given Modi’s style of secrecy, no one is willing to guess. In fact, in 2017, in an informal setting, then BJP chief Amit Shah had teased journalists about how none of them could guess Kovind’s name before he was picked.

Gubernatorial appointments are another indication into Modi’s style of functioning. In the eight years of NDA rule, most of the governors have been replaced after a five-year term so that veteran politicians could be rewarded with the post. While leaders who are 75 or older are not part of the Union cabinet, there are half a dozen governors who are over 80. Kovind himself is 76.

After Rajendra Prasad, the first president of India, no other president has had a second term. But that may not stop Modi and Shah from nominating Kovind again. Another convention has been to pick a governor, a vice president, or a senior minister for the top constitutional post. The only two prominent groups not to be represented in the president’s office are OBCs and tribals. In 2017, the name of BJP’s tribal leader Draupadi Murmu had made the rounds. If a new candidate is picked, the choice will be politically significant and will be used to send a message to voters.

Vice President Venkaiah Naidu’s tenure will also be over by August. Naidu has been an active vice president, commenting on government policies, and pushing and praising it. As Rajya Sabha chair, Naidu has been a stickler for the rulebook and has managed the house amid incessant protests. He has also not shied away from commenting on social issues like when he lashed out against hate speech in January.

In the past, only two vice presidents have got a second term—S. Radhakrishnan, the first vice president, and Hamid Ansari—while several others were promoted to the top post. If the NDA is looking for a new presidential candidate, Naidu is also in contention. The vice president’s election is easier for the NDA to win as the electoral college comprises only MPs, unlike the president’s election where the MLAs also vote.

“It goes without saying that the ruling party has the advantage [in the president’s elections],” said Rajiv Pratap Rudy, MP, BJP spokesperson and former Union minister. “With the [NDA’s] numbers, there shouldn’t be an issue. Presidency is not a political post. So, a lot of effort and compromises go into it.” He added that the selection of the candidate is decided at the highest level—“the PM level”.

The political landscape has changed much since 2017. The BJP has lost allies like the Shiv Sena, the Akali Dal and the Telugu Desam Party. The BJP has also lost states. But, the party’s recent good showing in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Goa and Manipur has put the BJP-led NDA in a comfortable position, though short of majority.

The gap to the halfway mark though has widened after the BJP lost seats in multiple states. For example, the 312 seats that it had in Uttar Pradesh in 2017 has fallen to 255. An Uttar Pradesh MLA’s vote has the highest value at 208 (assigned based on the population of states). But, the BJP has also gained 60 MPs in both houses since 2017. The party is also expected to gain more in the Rajya Sabha as 75 seats will go to polls before the presidential election. MP votes have a value of 708.

However, the ruling party will still need support to get the president of its choice elected as it needs around one per cent more for a majority. In 2017, the Telangana Rashtra Samithi, the Biju Janata Dal and the YSR Congress had also voted for Kovind, helping him to win over 65 per cent of the votes (the requirement was 50 per cent plus one vote). The YSR Congress and the BJD are still friendly. The YSR Congress has 28 MPs and 151 MLAs (vote value: 159), adding up to around 4 per cent of the value vote. The BJD has another three per cent (21 MPs and 114 MLAs at a value of 149).

As the numbers stand, unless the joint opposition is able to wean away BJP-friendly parties, its nominee stands no chance. However, the election would still be politically significant as it would provide the anti-BJP parties an arena to test their affinity for an alliance ahead of the 2024 general elections. But, efforts are still at a nascent stage.

Despite the presidential election looking favourable to the NDA, a consensus pick is unlikely. “It is not a difficult situation for the NDA at all,” said P.D.T Achary, former secretary general, Lok Sabha. “[But,] there has never been a consensus president. There have mostly been contestants in the polls.” Indeed, only two presidents have ever been elected unopposed. Prasad in 1950 and Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy in 1977, when 36 of the 37 nomination papers were rejected. Brace for an interesting contest ahead.