Presidential polls: When outcome is often certain & messaging important

Outcomes of presidential polls have been mostly certain even before the first vote was cast and rival political parties have often used the contest to send out a larger message centered around their politics through their choices.

In 2012, the BJP backed PA Sangma against the UPA’s Pranab Mukherjee in the hope of earning some brownie points for supporting a tribal candidate from the North East while KR Narayanan and APJ Abdul Kalam were such a powerful mix of symbolism and substance in 1997 and 2002 respectively that even the main opposition party ended up backing them.

Narayanan, a former diplomat who came from the Scheduled Caste, was a candidate of the United Front government and the Congress, and had received support from the opposition BJP as well. And when the saffron party picked Kalam, a much admired and respected scientist, when it was in power, Congress supported him.

With its choice of Droupadi Murmu, a tribal leader from a humble background, the BJP seems to have succeeded in sending a wider message about its representative politics after naming a Dalit in 2017, incumbent President Ram Nath Kovind, as she is all but certain to be India’s first ST president.

Have the Congress and other strident BJP rivals like the Trinamool Congress and the Left been able to make an important point with their choice of former Union Minister Yashwant Sinha?

Political experts believe the Congress decision to back Sinha, first a choice of the TMC, does signal its willingness to accommodate regional parties as the opposition gears up for the 2024 general election even though the candidate, a former BJP leader, himself may not inspire much enthusiasm and confidence.

The opposition’s decision to settle on a former BJP leader who rebelled against its current leadership seems to convey the message that all those against the present government should come together, said Manindra Nath Thakur, associate professor at the Center for Political Studies of JNU.

On symbolism, however, the opposition has lost out as even anti-BJP voices are wondering what is big deal about its candidate, he said, describing Sinha (84) as an “exhausted politician” who always lacked any mass appeal. Though he does enjoy a clean image, Thakur added.

That Sinha is a bureaucrat-turned-politician from an upper caste while Murmu is a tribal person from one of the most backward regions of Odisha has only accentuated the contrast, prompting regional parties such as the BJD and the YSR Congress to back her while an opposition member like Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, which associates itself with the tribal cause, is also in a bind. Mayawati’s BSP has announced support to Murmu as well.

Thakur said the opposition could have experimented with a Dalit or Muslim candidate at a time when the BJP is going all out with its politics of representation to convey that its ideology of Hindutva and nationalism has a space for the most disadvantaged sections of society.

Noting that its critics have often tried to project the RSS-BJP as a proponent of Brahminical ideology which is “anti-Dalit, anti-tribal and anti-Muslim”, the ruling party has assiduously worked to break this campaign, he said.

Its projection of Kovind helped silence most Dalit voices working against the BJP, and Murmu’s candidacy will achieve a similar feat among tribals, Thakur said, adding the party had already been getting support from a section of tribals.

This support will be further consolidated, he added.

When the BJP-led NDA picked Kovind in 2017, the Congress-led opposition zeroed in on Meira Kumar, also a Dalit, so as to be not accused of opposing a candidate from the most disadvantaged section of society.

In 2007, the UPA choice of Pratibha Patil had split the BJP-led NDA as Shiv Sena, then an ally of the saffron party, chose to back her as she was from Maharashtra instead of its own alliance candidate Bhairon Singh Shekhawat. She went on to become India’s first woman President.

The UPA’s choice of Mukherjee, a veteran politician who drew respect from rival parties too, had caused a similar flutter in the NDA ranks as the likes of Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s JD (U) besides Shiv Sena broke ranks with the BJP to back him .

With the numbers mostly on their side, the ruling alliance at the Center has always had the advantage in outwitting the opposition through its choice. All the opposition can do is to make the most of the losing battle to score a point about its ideological messaging.

This is what it sought to do in 1982 when it named former Supreme Court judge HR Khanna, whose solitary voice of dissent in favor of civil liberties shone through when the court sided with the government decision on suspending them in the Emergency, as its candidate against the ruling Congress’ Zail Singh.

It was to emphasize its staunch ideological opposition to the BJP that made the Left parties field Lakshmi Sahgal, a member of Subhas Chandra Bose’s Azad Hind Fauj, against Kalam in 2002 even though Congress supported him, a BJP choice.

In 1992, opposition parties backed George Gilbert Swell, a seasoned parliamentarian and tribal leader who played an important role in the movement for statehood of Meghalaya, against Congress’ Shankar Dayal Sharma, who won easily.

Though presidential contest generally generates not much buzz even as the contestants do so sometime due to their personal stature and background, the 1969 poll was consequential like no other past election, and no future battle for India’s top constitutional post has matched its resonance as well so sheep.

The bubbling tension between the Congress establishment, including its president S Nijalingappa, and then prime minister Indira Gandhi erupted as she disapproved of her party’s choice Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy and instead showed preference for VV Giri, who contested as an independent.

Giri won, Gandhi was expelled from the party by Nijalingappa only for her to walk away with a large number of party members and a majority of MPs as well.

With the BJP making out efforts to secure maximum vote for Murmu, Sinha has projected the upcoming poll as a contest between identity and ideology, and asserted that it will have a defining impact on the country’s politics.

Political watchers will be keenly watching the outcome, especially the support he can rally around, for the evidence of his claims.

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