Presidential Election 2017: Leave alone the race to Raisina, Congress looks out of shape for 2019 as well

Sonia Gandhi's contention that the presidential poll is a "clash of ideas" and a "conflict of values" is unconvincing. It is evident that Congress is trying to make a virtue out of political helplessness, short as it is of crucial numbers in the polling game. It is also a hollow statement because the Congress clearly doesn't practice what it preaches.

 Presidential Election 2017: Leave alone the race to Raisina, Congress looks out of shape for 2019 as well

File image of Meira Kumar and Sonia Gandhi. PTI

Barring a miracle, Opposition candidate Meira Kumar has even less of a chance against NDA nominee Ram Nath Kovind than Marin Cilic had against Roger Federer. Kovind's election on Thursday as India's 14th President is almost a foregone conclusion. Gandhi's elaborate appeal to "conscience of the electorate", therefore, is an anxious call for Opposition unity and an attempt to test-fire the 'communalism' weapon. Simply put, Congress is trying to use the presidential polls as a dress rehearsal for the larger battle in 2019.

There is nothing wrong with the strategy, except that there is nothing right about its execution. In trying to fashion the presidential polls as a morality play, Sonia Gandhi (or her speechwriter) has made Congress's hypocrisy even starker. It little suits an amorphous Opposition featuring the likes of Congress, Trinamool Congress and Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) to seek morality and probity as a body armour.

Addressing an Assembly of Opposition parties on Sunday, the Congress president said "best minds" should be selected for the hallowed posts. "We must ensure… that the best minds and the best servants of India stand at the helm. Together, Meiraji and Gopal Krishna Gandhiji will give us the best possible president and vice-president to steer our society through the crisis that has beset our country today."

Adopting absolutist moral positions is always a hazardous choice in politics. For a party that sent Pratibha Patil to Raisina Hill to succeed Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, it sounds a bit rich and a whole lot farcical to talk about "merit" as a criterion for selection of candidates. Picked from obscurity due to her family's unflinching loyalty towards the Nehru-Gandhi clan, Patil was exactly the kind of candidate that Sonia Gandhi is now railing against.

All through her tenure and even long after she had retired from the chair, Patil battled charges of impropriety, nepotism and even ran into trouble over the construction of her retirement home in Pune on a piece of land owned by defence ministry and meant for war widows.

Point is, the post of the president is ostensibly apolitical but every party treats it as a ploy to send signals to its political base. The BJP and Congress have stayed true to the script. The BJP has been at pains to stress on Kovind's long career as a Parliamentarian and his legal and administrative acumen.

There is little doubt that Kovind is incomparable to Patil. He is the Governor of Bihar, an accomplished lawyer having practised in the Delhi High Court and Supreme Court for 16 years, has represented India at the United Nations, addressed the UNGA in 2002 and has an illustrious record of representing the subalterns and fighting for their rights. But there's also little doubt that the scale tipped in Kovind's favour because he was a Dalit and the BJP needed to send a political message across to the community crucial to its scheme of things in 2019.

Daughter of the late Dalit leader Babu Jagjivan Ram, Meira Kumar, ex-Lok Sabha Speaker, is no less an accomplished candidate. It actually says little about the maturity of our democracy when the ongoing debate around presidential polls is not around the credentials of the candidates but their Dalit identity, and the tunnel vision is on who is more "Dalit" than the other. The sad truth is, politics of identity trumps every other parameters during polls in India. Presidential polls are no exception.

Representational image. PTI

Representational image. PTI

While waxing eloquent about preserving the soul of India and vowing to fight against "narrow-minded, divisive and communal vision", the Congress president would have sounded more convincing had the Opposition backed Gopal Krishna Gandhi as the president, not the vice-president. If the Congress was so convinced of the 'sacredness' of its mission and confident that it is on the 'right path' why did it feel compelled to field a 'Dalit' candidate against Kovind? The Opposition could have simply said that it doesn't believe in subjecting the office of the President to identity politics.

Truth is, the Congress-led Opposition was outmanoeuvred by the BJP in presidential polls and it is now trying to spin its reactive move as a 'battle of principles'. In both cases — virtue-signaling and attempt to seal Opposition unity — Congress has come a cropper.

The likes of Nitish Kumar, Naveen Patnaik, K Chandrasekhar Rao had already announced their intention of backing Kovind and it appears from media reports on polling day that even NCP and the rebel faction in Samajwadi Party led by former chief minister Mulayam Singh Yadav and his brother Shivpal have broken away from Opposition ranks.

Curiously, on the day Sonia Gandhi launched a vituperative attack against the Narendra Modi government, the prime minister sounded conciliatory and praised the Opposition for their conduct. "For the first time, there were no unnecessary comments made by any side regarding the other candidate nor were there any statements made. All parties have maintained the dignity of the election. It is what our democracy stands for," he was quoted, as saying. He also launched a stinging attack against gau rakshaks.

There is a sense, as Sumit Pande has written in News 18, that Modi has created enough breathing space for "friends like Nitish Kumar so they don’t have to be apologetic about partnering the BJP".

Opposition's unity or divergence during presidential polls won't be an accurate reflection of the coalition game in 2019. BJP's hegemonic rise will make it difficult for it to court for allies. Be that as it may, the presidential polls give us a broad hint, and judging by that parameter, Congress may find it tougher in 2019 to stitch up the mythical third front. What it lacks is a leader like Modi, who remains several steps ahead of the game than his rivals.

Updated Date: Jul 17, 2017 19:07:09 IST