Presidential polls: For Congress, a prelude to battles ahead

That the nominee of the ruling BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) will easily win the coming presidential and vice-presidential elections — with the expected support of some friendly parties in the case of the former — is perhaps a foregone conclusion.

But the elections will surely be a test for many Opposition parties, especially the Congress. It remains to be seen if the Congress succeeds in rallying the regional parties to field joint candidates for both the posts and what position some of these parties take. Rahul Gandhi initially said at his party’s Udaipur conclave this month that these forces have no ideology or national vision before clarifying last week that the Congress does not think it is superior to other Opposition parties.

A few senior Congress leaders believe that some regional parties that are not willing to accept the central role and dominance of the grand old party in the Opposition space could assert themselves and may chalk out a separate plan. They sense something is afoot. Will the Congress play ball if some of the other parties get together and propose a name? Or does the Congress have an ace up its sleeve? After all, it still has good relations with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), the Shiv Sena, and the Left.

Given all this, the Opposition space will be the one that will be keenly watched in the coming days. The term of incumbent President Ram Nath Kovind ends on July 25. In 2017, the election was held on July 17 and votes were counted three days later.

Even if the Opposition parties come together and field joint candidates for both the elections, as they did in 2017, it will not lead to a grand electoral alliance in the run-up to the 2024 general elections. But a working relationship among the disparate parties is a low-hanging fruit that some of the Opposition leaders are looking at.

Take the case of K Chandrashekar Rao, the Telangana chief minister and Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) chief popularly known as KCR. He met Samajwadi Party (SP) chief Akhilesh Yadav and broke bread with Arvind Kejriwal, whose Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) had called Rao “arrogant” and “Chhota Modi (Little Modi)” just two months ago. Sources said the presidential election figured in his talks with both Yadav and Kejriwal.

In Telangana earlier this month, Rahul too accused Rao of functioning like a “Raja (king)” and declared that the Congress would have no electoral association with the TRS. So what does this new-found bonhomie between Rao and Kejriwal signal? Both face a formidable electoral threat from the BJP but are staunchly opposed to the Congress too.

As of today, the BJP has 42.2 per cent of the votes in the electoral college for the presidential election. With allies part of the NDA, it goes up to nearly 48 per cent. The Congress has 13.38 per cent votes. The number goes up to around 24 per cent if the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) — DMK, NCP, Shiv Sena, National Conference, Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, Muslim League, Revolutionary Socialist Party, Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi, Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, etc — is considered.

If the Left parties, which have 2.5 per cent votes, are added to the UPA’s figure, the number goes up to 26.3 per cent. The numbers could change a little after the biennial elections to the Rajya Sabha elections next month.

But the question remains: what stand will some of the regional parties take?

Going by past trends, the Biju Janata Dal (2.9 per cent) and the YSR Congress Party (3 per cent) could support an NDA nominee. Or will they spring a surprise? What about the Trinamool Congress, which has 5.3 per cent of the votes. TMC-Congress ties have come under strain after the Congress allied with the Left and fought against it in West Bengal last year, which perhaps prompted Mamata Banerjee to enter the Goa fray (it ended in a fiasco).

And what about the SP? Rahul’s assertion in Udaipur has left many of the satraps fuming despite the nuanced position he has taken since then. And if Akhilesh Yadav decides to send dissident Congress leader Kapil Sibal to the Rajya Sabha — the possibility is said to be very high — it will further strain the ties between the SP and the Congress.

And what will KCR and Kejriwal do? Will they reach out to other Opposition parties to undercut the Congress? Congress leaders feel some of the Opposition parties could join hands to rally around a common candidate and then force the grand old party to take a position.

“These people are doing something. KCR’s main opponent in Telangana is the Congress. TMC people also believe the Congress should be kept away … they are preparing something … all of them are targeting the Congress. They fight the Congress more than they fight the BJP,” a senior leader who is a member of the Congress Working Committee (CWC) told The Indian Express.

The Congress desperately lacks a leader like Ahmed Patel to do the background work. “Ahmed Patel used to call us, take our sense … It was he who used to invite us for Opposition meetings. Now we don’t know what the Congress is thinking about. We are yet to get any signal from the Congress,” an Opposition leader said.

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Another Opposition functionary said, “The Opposition should not be splintered. It should field a joint candidate. I accept it won’t make much of a difference. It is also true that we all will fight separately in the 2024 elections … and there is no chance of a national coalition. But it has a huge symbolic value that we all come together and field a joint candidate for both president and vice president elections.”

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