Presidential polls a test of Opposition unity

New Delhi: The countdown for electing the 16th President of India has begun with the Election Commission’s announcement of the poll schedule on Thursday. This is the only opportunity for the Opposition to flaunt its unity ahead of the 2024 general elections and for the Congress to keep its position as the lead Opposition party.

Congress President Sonia Gandhi has deputed Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha Mallikarjun Kharge to reach out to the Opposition parties. Sources said that after informal talks with all Opposition parties, a joint meeting will be scheduled in Delhi.

“The Congress believes in building consensus among all Opposition parties and we shall have a common candidate who will represent the secular ethos of the like-minded parties. This contest is about putting up an alternative to the communal and regressive agenda of the BJP,” Congress general secretary (organisation) K.C. Venugopal said.

CPI leader Binoy Viswam tweeted that he had received a call from Mr. Kharge. Mr. Viswam said that the CPI would support a common candidate with secular credentials and a progressive outlook.

Different scenario

The 2022 Presidential elections are different in many ways, compared to the one in 2017. There have been three key changes in the last five years. One, the Aam Aadmi Party, with its victory in Punjab now has Chief Ministers in two States, at par with the Congress (Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh). The Congress has studiously kept AAP out of the Opposition equation over the years.

Second, the Trinamool Congress party, which played an able deputy to the Congress in the 2017 Presidential polls, is far more assertive after its stupendous victory in the May 2021 Assembly election in West Bengal.

Third, the Telangana Rashtra Samithi, threatened by the BJP’s expansion in Telangana is now with the Opposition bloc, but does not want to be seen following the Congress. The trinity of AAP, Trinamool and TRS thus make it difficult for the Congress to take the pole position in this battle.

The Congress though is not perturbed by the speculations. A senior Congress leader said, “At the end of the day, among the Opposition parties, we have the highest number of votes, so how can anyone say that they will build an Opposition bloc without us?”

Trinamool spokesperson and Rajya Sabha MP Sukhendu Sekhar Ray said, “So far, we haven’t discussed the Presidential elections. These are decisions taken at the highest level and in a day or two our party’s stand vis-a-vis the other Opposition parties will be clear.”

The Shiv Sena, which in recent months has emerged the biggest cheerleader of the Congress, agreed that the presidential election will decide the contours of the Opposition. Shiv Sena leader Sanjay Raut, speaking to The Hindu, said that so far his party was busy with the Rajya Sabha polls scheduled for Friday and has not had a chance to discuss the Presidential election. Mr. Raut added that the Opposition parties have been in touch with each other over phone and would meet soon in Delhi. “There is no doubt that these elections are crucial. It is the only test of Opposition unity ahead of the next 2024 general elections,” Mr. Raut said.

In the 2017 presidential election, the Opposition candidate, Meira Kumar, managed to strike a record even in her defeat by polling the highest number votes by a losing candidate. She received 3.67 lakh votes out of 10.69 lakh valid votes polled. This time, the Opposition has chance to break that record too, with the additional support of the Shiv Sena and the TRS.