Prez race a pointer to the 2019 battle?

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The Election Commission has announced the schedule for the election of the Rashtrapati. President Pranab Mukherjee’s five-year term ends on July 24. If an election becomes necessary, the polling day is July 17. The way politics has moved so far, a consensus between the BJP-led NDA and its opponents on Mr Mukherjee’s successor appears unlikely. The stance taken by the BJP team of two senior ministers, Rajnath Singh and M. Venkaiah Naidu, with Congress president Sonia Gandhi on Friday, seems to confirm this impression. The BJP did not put forward a name on which it sought the support of the main Opposition party, but merely sought the Congress’ “cooperation” for whoever it may decide on.
The ruling party team could hardly have expected its principal ideological and political opponent to sign on the dotted line. That is what the BJP’s NDA allies are meant for, even so some doubt persists on how the Shiv Sena might behave. The first NDA government led by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee was a coalition with several non-Hindutva parties. The BJP knew it would be unwise to insist on a President with a Hindutva/RSS background.
Its own partners would have been uncomfortable. The NDA proposed much-admired scientist A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, who won. But Prime Minister Narendra Modi heads a single-party government for all practical purposes, and the BJP has a majority in Parliament. It also controls several state Assemblies and is only marginally short of electoral college votes. It can easily have its way, including having someone with a strong RSS background as the custodian of the Constitution.
That would be so much the pity. Such a President is unlikely to be seen as an impartial protector of the flame of the State in a democracy with the world’s most diverse social structure. He is more likely to be seen as an extension of the government machinery. It will be interesting to see if the non-NDA parties remain a cohesive group, regardless of who the BJP offers as candidate. If not, it will be reasonably clear that unity of the Opposition parties for the 2019 Lok Sabha election is not certain. Finding a successor to President Mukherjee, and the role of the non-BJP parties in this process, is certainly a part of the project of working for Opposition unity for 2019, which the Congress kicked off with the luncheon meeting of non-NDA parties hosted by Mrs Gandhi last month. In the end, the Congress may be left with no choice but to put forward a candidate in the presidential election even if the fight is largely symbolic. It will be keenly watched how many parties the Congress can manage to mobilise on its side.

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