The stage is set for the presidential contest with the announcement of candidates by the ruling party and the Opposition and there may already be a winner. In Yashwant Sinha vs Droupadi Murmu, Murmu’s candidature looks unassailable, and not just because the poll math tilts in favour of the BJP-led NDA. Hers is a powerful story in a democracy, “President Murmu” will have enormous symbolic significance. If elected, the school teacher from Odisha who worked her way up the political ladder against great odds, marking many firsts along the way, as councilor, MLA, minister and governor, will be the first president to belong to a Scheduled Tribe, and only the second woman to make it to the country’s top constitutional post. Of course, a section of the Opposition may now cry tokenism. They may point out that her candidature is driven by the BJP’s electoral calculation in Odisha and among the Scheduled Tribe electorates ahead of the next rounds of polls. Or that it is only part of the greater Hindutva project to create a majoritarian whole without ceding real power to marginalised communities. But in the aftermath of the announcement of her candidature on Tuesday, these arguments sound more like bad-humoured carping by those who can see the writing on the wall, and the contest’s also-rans. Clearly, the Opposition could not summon either the political imagination or the agility to put up a fight.
The Opposition, in fact, has much to be embarrassed about. In the run-up to the presidential election, at a time when it needed to put up a united show and rally behind a consensus candidate, to send a bracing political signal even if there was little likelihood of victory, it ended up floating names of possible contestants for the post, only for them to decline the offer. That, in quick succession, Gopal Gandhi, Farooq Abdullah and Sharad Pawar said thanks, but no thanks, only goes to show that essential political spadework was not done by these parties before making these names public. Finally, 17 parties declared Yashwant Sinha as the common Opposition candidate even as there are several non-BJP parties that will find it politically difficult to oppose and be seen to oppose Murmu’s candidature. These include, prominently, Naveen Patnaik’s BJD in Orissa, Murmu’s home state, and the JMM in Jharkhand, where she served as governor and which has a substantial population of Scheduled Tribes.
Ahead of the presidential poll, then, comes more confirmation, if more was needed, that the BJP is not just winning elections, it is also setting the agenda and the Opposition is only playing catch-up, or almost. If the Rajya Sabha polls, and then the presidential election is indication, the Opposition has an uphill climb ahead. It needs political resolve, imagination and a strategy — merely invoking spectres of an endangered idea of India or pieties of a besieged constitutionalism will not do.