Nitish stays away as opposition parties meet on presidential candidate
New Delhi, May 26 (IANS) Major opposition parties, led by the Congress, came together on Friday on a common platform and decided to contest the upcoming presidential election if the government does not come up with a consensus candidate -- but the absence of Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar set off speculation about possible political realignment.
On a day the Narendra Modi government completed three years in office, the luncheon meeting convened by Congress president Sonia Gandhi, brought together leaders of mutually antagonistic outfits in states, like the Left with Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee, and BSP chief Mayawati face to face with Samajwadi Party president Akhilesh Yadav.
The meeting also provided a joint platform for them to hit out at the Modi government policies, saying it had imposed unprecedented burden on all sections of the people, including farmers, youth, minorities and weaker sections.
A joint statement issued after the meeting said, it's a normal practice for the ruling party to take the initiative to build a consensus on the names of candidates for the posts of President and Vice President. "This has not happened so far. If acceptable consensual candidates do not emerge, then we (opposition parties) shall decide to field such persons who shall steadfastly defend the constitutional values of our republic."
Banerjee, who left the meeting at the Parliament House a little early, told reporters that it was agreed that a consensus was possible on a government nominee also if the candidate was secular and would uphold the Constitution. In case a consensus was not possible then a committee would be formed to choose an opposition nominee.
However, the absence of JD-U chief Nitish Kumar set political tongues wagging, with his scheduled attendance on Saturday at a lunch being hosted by the Prime Minister for the visiting Mauritius Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth, adding fuel to the fire.
Questions were raised whether Saturday's lunch could be a precursor to BJP and JD-U coming together in Bihar, and by extension on national issues.
JD-U leaders were at pains to explain that Kumar was only attending an official function, and it had nothing to do with politics.
Kumar himself sought to downplay the development, saying he was being invited to a lunch for the Prime Minister of a country with which Bihar has long-standing ties. He also recalled that he had already met Sonia Gandhi last month.
However, political observers say that Kumar's absence from the opposition leaders meeting where RJD chief Lalu Prasad was present, was more than what meets the eye -- especially after the IT raids on the "benami" properties of Lalu's kin.
Others present at the meeting included former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi, Nationalist Congress Party leader Sharad Pawar, Janata Dal-United leader Sharad Yadav and National Conference leader Omar Abdullah.
The term of President Mukherjee will end in July and that of Vice President Hamid Ansari in August this year.
The ruling BJP-led alliance has so far not come up with any names but is learnt to have begun discussions with its allies to pick up nominees for both the posts.
The BJP has a clear edge in the presidential election due to support of some parties outside the ruling National Democratic Alliance.
Banerjee said there was no harm in discussing a candidate with the government if it comes out with a name and referred to the 2002 Presidential election when the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had floated A.P.J. Abdul Kalam's name and a consensus was evolved around it.
Asked about another term for incumbent Pranab Mukherjee, she said no names were discussed in the meeting.
Banerjee said all the parties were united in criticism of the government over Kashmir, the violence in Saharanpur and demonetisation.
The joint statement said the opposition parties resolved to strengthen floor coordination in Parliament and "unitedly oppose the government's policies that are imposing unprecedented further burden on all sections of our people - farmers, working people, youth, SCs, STs minorities, women and other weaker sections of the society in various parts of the country".
Talking to reporters, Mayawati said the condition of Dalits, people belonging to weaker sections, religious minorities, poor and farmers has deteriorated in the three years of NDA government.
"The meeting was held in a very good atmosphere. All parties decided that the policies and working style of the central government will be taken to the public," she said.
Lalu said the Modi government has failed on all fronts.
"Under Modi's rule the Pakistan flag is being waved in Jammu and Kashmir and terrorists from Pakistan cross the border and kill our soldiers. All promises made to the youth have also failed," he said.
CPI's Sudhakar Reddy said the opposition parties may wait for the ruling alliance to announce a candidate "till the announcement of presidential polls".
Among those who attended the meeting were Congress leaders A.K. Antony, Mallikarjun Kharge and Ahmed Patel, JD-U's K. C. Tyagi, Samajwadi Party's Ram Gopal Yadav and Naresh Agrawal, BSP's Satish Misra, DMK's Kanimozhi, RJD's Prem Chand Gupta, Jharkhand Mukti Morcha's Hemant Soren and Sanjiv Kumar, Kerala Congress' Jose Mani, IUML's P.K. Kunhalikutty, CPI-M's P. Karunakaran, CPI's D. Raja, AIUDF's Badruddin Ajmal, RSP's N.K. Premchandran and C.S. Puttaraju of Janata Dal-Secular.
Sonia Gandhi had taken the initiative to evolve a consensus presidential candidate of the opposition and had spoken to a number of leaders in this context.