Springing a surprise, the Bharatiya Janata Party on Monday named Bihar Governor Ram Nath Kovind, a Dalit and a BJP leader, as the ruling NDA's candidate for the July 17 Presidential election.
"We have decided that Ram Nath Kovind will be the NDA Presidential candidate," BJP President Amit Shah said after a nearly two-hour meeting here of the party's Parliamentary Board attended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and senior leaders.
He said the BJP and the National Democratic Alliance had been discussing the Presidential election for long.
"The BJP also discussed the issue with all political parties and several sections of the society. After this, a long list (of candidates) was prepared which was discussed during the Parliamentary Board meeting," Shah told the media.
Kovind, 72, who emerged as the dark horse, is likely to file the nomination on June 23, he said. If elected, he will be the second Indian President after K.R. Narayanan to hail from the Dalit community.
The earlier names which were doing the rounds for Presidency included External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan.
While all NDA allies have been informed of the BJP choice, Prime Minister Modi talked to Congress President Sonia Gandhi, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and other leaders about the NDA choice, the BJP President said.
Modi also spoke with Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar (JD-U), Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik (BJD), Telangana Chief Minister K. Chandrashekhar Rao (TRS) and Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu (TDP).
Senior BJP leader M. Venkaiah Naidu spoke to party veterans L.K. Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi.
"Ram Nath comes from a Dalit family and has struggled a lot. We hope he will be the unanimous candidate for the election," Shah said.
He said Kovind had had a long innings in public life and fought for the cause of Dalits and the poor.
An advocate by profession, Kovind was made the Governor of Bihar two years ago after the NDA took power in the centre in May 2014.
He once headed the BJP's Dalit wing. He was a member of the Rajya Sabha for 12 years and was a member of several parliamentary panels.
He had practised law in both High Court and the Supreme Court.
DALIT, LAWYER AND OLD BJP HAND
His face doesn't grab airtime, his comments do not court controversy and his actions seldom make news. The National Democratic Alliance's man for the country's highest constitutional post is as low profile as can be.
But Bihar Governor Ram Nath Kovind, 71, has attributes that not many in the large NDA family can boast of. The Kanpur-born former lawyer is a Dalit leader, is known for his organisational skills and is a loyal member of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Names of several presidential probables from the NDA stable were doing the rounds but Kovind, a former national spokesperson of the party, was not among them. While the choice may have surprised political watchers, it's an astute move for a party working overtime to expand its social base and win over new constituencies.
Kovind, who could well be India's 14th president if the numbers stack up, is married and has a son and a daughter.
BJP chief Amit Shah said the party's parliamentary board went through a long list of potential candidates before choosing Kovind, who was its MP in the Rajya Sabha for two terms and headed its Dalit Morcha.
Kovind's links to the party's controversial Hindutva politics, however, are tenuous. Sources say he has been drawn more to the politics of social empowerment of Dalits and other weaker sections than the plank of religion.
Largely seen as an affable man, he has had a quiet innings as the governor of Bihar, a post that he took up in August 2015, months before assembly elections were held in the state.
It is an acknowledgement of his non-confrontational conduct that Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, who has been battling the BJP in the state, lavished praise on him today, saying he had done "exemplary work" as governor.
Kumar, who had earlier been critical of the NDA government's appointment of Kovind as governor, had then said he was not consulted about the move. But since then, the two have been getting along well, the sources said.
Kovind, a commerce graduate who also studied law at Kanpur University, practised in the Delhi High Court and the Supreme Court. He was also the Central government's standing counsel in the apex court from 1980-93.
His official profile on the Bihar governor's website describes him as a crusader for "rights and cause of weaker sections of society specially Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes/OBC/ minority…" from his student days.
Shah today highlighted his "humble background" and work for the cause of weaker sections as he appealed to the opposition parties to support Kovind as a consensus candidate.
The party's top brass would hope that by sending the only Dalit after K R Narayanan — and the first from the Hindi heartland –to Rashtrapati Bhavan, the BJP would win over the community.
The BJP has been seeking to widen its base beyond its traditional constituencies of upper castes and trading classes and has succeeded to a large extent, as seen in the UP assembly polls.
Kovind, who headed Dalit Morcha from 1998 to 2002, also led the All-India Koli Samaj.
Elected to the Rajya Sabha in April 1994 from Uttar Pradesh, he served two consecutive terms till March 2006.
He joined a stir by SC/ST employees in 1997 when Dalits and others protested against orders issued by the Central government, which were rescinded by Atal Bihari Vajpayee when the NDA came to power.
As an advocate, Kovind took the lead in providing free legal aid to weaker sections, especially the SC/ST women, and poor and needy girls under the aegis of the Free Legal Aid Society in Delhi.
Known for his work in the field of education, he served as a member on the board of management of the Dr BR Ambedkar University, Lucknow, and was a member of the board of governors of the Indian Institute of Management, Kolkata.
'NO SCOPE FOR CONSENSUS'
The Congress on Monday spurned the BJP's appeal for consensus on its choice for president and said the opposition would take a call on contesting the election after a meeting on June 22.
The BJP had taken a "unilateral decision", Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad said soon after the announcement of Bihar Governor Ram Nath Kovind as the NDA's candidate for president.
"Congress does not want to comment on this issue as we want to take a unanimous decision with all other opposition parties on the presidential elections. The final call will be taken in a meeting of all opposition parties on June 22," Azad told reporters here.
Terming the BJP's efforts to reach out to the opposition through its senior leaders as a "formality and a PR exercise", Azad said the ruling party should have built consensus before announcing the candidate.
"But they informed us after announcing this decision so there is no scope for consensus now… We were not expecting this from the ruling party. But it is their will, they are free to take a one-sided unilateral decision," Azad added.
No names were discussed when senior BJP leaders M Venkaiah Naidu and Rajnath Singh met Congress president Sonia Gandhi last week, the Congress leader said.
Asked to comment on the BJP fielding a Dalit candidate for the top constitutional post, Azad said, "…I don't want to comment on this…I don't want to comment on the merits and demerits of the candidate."
He added that minorities, backwards and Dalits were not priorities for the BJP-led government. Atrocities on Dalits in Saharanpur were a clear example of this.
Discussing whether Nitish Kumar would attend the June 22 meeting, Azad said he had himself called the Bihar chief minister who had assured him that there would be somebody from his Janata Dal-United.
WILL SEEK SUPPORT OF ALL PARTIES: KOVIND
The NDA's Presidential candidate Ram Nath Kovind on Monday expressed the hope that all political parties will back his nomination in the July 17 election.
"I appeal to all members of the electoral college who are MPs and MLAs from all political parties. I will appeal to them, I will meet them and take their blessings," Kovind told the media on his arrival from Patna.
Asked whether Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar extended his support when he called on him, the Bihar Governor said the Janata Dal-United leader had made a courtesy call.
"As I am the Governor of Bihar, Nitishji made a courtesy call when he came to know about my nomination."
Asked if the opposition will field a candidate against him, Kovind said: "I think I will have the support and blessings of every citizen of India."
He thanked Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP family for reposing trust and entrusting such a big responsibility on "an ordinary citizen".
On his arrival in Delhi airport, Kovind was greeted by a host of union ministers and BJP leaders including Thawar Chand Gehlot, J.P. Nadda, Bhupendra Yadav, Kailash Vijayvargiya and Manoj Tiwary.
Earlier, in Patna, Kovind said about his nomination: "It is a duty. Let us take it as a duty."
He said he had a lot of good wishes for Bihar, which he added had "rich culture, rich traditions and lot of heritage". IANS/PTI