Patna: Nitish Kumar, the Chief Minister of Bihar, has decided to side with the Narendra Modi government and back Ram Nath Kovind for President, top leaders of his party said today.
The Chief Minister will meet early this evening with his party colleagues including Sharad Yadav and formally announce that they will not support the opposition if it puts up its own contender, a decision that Mr Kumar reportedly conveyed on Monday to Congress leader Sonia Gandhi and partner Lalu Yadav after Mr Kovind was named as the BJP's nominee.
Ratnesh Sada, the chief whip in the Bihar assembly of Mr Kumar's Janata Dal-United said the Chief Minister had informed party leaders that the party will support Mr Kovind. "It is for the first time that the Governor of Bihar has been chosen for the post of President. We are all supporting him, the Chief Minister is supporting him...it's good for Bihar," Mr Sada told reporters in Patna today .
Ram Nath Kovind, 71, who is a Dalit, was Governor of Bihar till the BJP chose him as its surprise nominee for President. Chief Minister Kumar has praised Mr Kovind substantially for serving as an impartial Governor.
By supporting Mr Kovind for President, Mr Kumar will break ranks with an 18-member bloc of the opposition that is scheduled to meet tomorrow at a session chaired by Sonia Gandhi. It was Nitish Kumar who had first suggested to Mrs Gandhi at a meeting in April that she take lead the initiative to field a joint opposition candidate for President.
Parties like the Left and the Congress are keen on an election for President. The BJP and its allies, with the support of regional parties, have about 60 per cent of the vote, but the Left has said an election is a must as a "battle of ideologies."
An election, if necessary, will be held on July 17, a week before the term of President Pranab Mukherjee ends.
In 2012, Mr Kumar broke with the national alliance led by the BJP that he was then a part of to support Mr Mukherjee, who was the government's candidate, rather than the opposition's contender, PA Sangma.
The opposition had intended to use the election for President this year to demonstrate a new and growing unity, one that could challenge Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the general election in 2019. But after Mr Kovind was named, party leaders like Mayawati, who are essential for a united anti-BJP front, have indicated that it's tough to oppose a Dalit candidate and risk alienating the politically vital community and lower castes.
As a counter, the Left has suggested two Dalit options, both from the Congress - former Lok Sabha speaker Meira Kumar and former union minister Sushil Kumar Shinde. But it is for their party to act on the proposal, said D Raja of the CPI yesterday.
Mr Kumar governs Bihar in partnership with RJD chief Lalu Yadav and the Congress. With his children named in corruption cases by tax officials for allegedly acquiring a vast portfolio of proxy-owned properties, Lalu Yadav is reportedly determined to not be seen on the same side as the centre and is lobbying hard for an election, said sources.
The Congress is keen on a contest as it tries to signal its relevance despite its huge losses in a series of elections.