Next President to be elected on July 18, Sonia dials Mamata, Pawar to force contest

With President Ram Nath Kovind’s term ending July 24, the Election Commission of India Thursday announced that polling to elect the country’s 15th President will be held on July 18 and the votes will be counted July 21. The ruling BJP-led NDA and the Opposition are yet to reveal their choice of candidates.

That the nominee of the NDA, which has around 48 per cent votes in the electoral college, will win the Presidential race, with the help of some friendly parties like the BJD of Odisha and YSRCP of Andhra Pradesh, is a foregone conclusion. But the Opposition is gearing to force a contest like last time.

Congress president Sonia Gandhi spoke to West Bengal Chief Minister and TMC leader Mamata Banerjee and NCP chief Sharad Pawar as part of efforts to find a consensus candidate. She has already spoken to other leaders like Sitaram Yechury of the CPM. It is learned that Gandhi told the leaders that Mallikarjun Kharge, Leader of Opposition in Rajya Sabha, would be the point person on behalf of her party for the elections.

Sources in the Opposition camp said consultations are on between like-minded parties to find a consensus candidate. But the Opposition, in 2017, is badly divided. “There will be a contest for sure. And we will field a candidate who is acceptable to all,” a senior Opposition leader said. Sources said top leaders of the Congress, Trinamool Congress, NCP, Shiv Sena and the Left parties have exchanged notes. A formal meeting is yet to be scheduled.

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“We are in touch over the phone. Our candidate would be a political person,” another leader said. But there is deep distrust between various parties. While the SP had backed former Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar, the consensus Opposition candidate last time, it is to be seen what stance the party will adopt this time.

Similar is the case with the AAP which is in power in Punjab and Delhi. The AAP has been at loggerheads with the Congress, exchanging barbs and attacks almost everyday. It has little option as the party is stridently opposed to the BJP too. K Chandrashekar Rao’s TRS too is not on talking terms with the Congress. The TMC and the Left bloc too don’t see eye to eye.

The challenge, therefore, is to find a name which is acceptable to a wider majority in the Opposition camp if it has to put up a united and formidable fight. At least one Opposition leader said the candidate will not be from the Congress or the TMC. “Backroom channels are working to at least bring all like-minded parties on the same page on contesting. The names will come later,” a Left leader said.

Chief Election Commissioner Rajiv Kumar, Election Commissioner Anup Chandra Pandey and Senior Deputy Election Commissioner Dharmendra Sharma during a press conference regarding the announcement of the schedule of Presidential elections, at Vigyan Bhawan, in New Delhi. (PTI)

The ruling NDA too is keeping its cards close to its chest. BJP sources said senior leaders are already in touch with friendly parties like YSRCP and BJD. The BJP appears confident of getting their support to ensure smooth sailing for its candidate. The BJP alone has 392 MPs, excluding the four nominated Rajya Sabha members who cannot vote, out of the current strength of 772 members from both Houses.

Given the present strength of the parties in Parliament and in the state Assemblies (leaving out the 57 vacant Rajya Sabha seats), the NDA has 48 per cent of the votes (BJP 42 per cent and allies 6 per cent), and the Congress- led UPA has 24 per cent votes. The Trinamool Congress has 5.4 per cent, the YSRCP has 4 per cent, BJD has 2.85 per cent, the Left parties have 2.5 per cent and the rest of the parties constitute around 12 per cent of the electoral college.

In the UPA, the Congress has 13.5 per cent and the allies – among them the DMK, Shiv Sena, NCP, JMM and smaller parties like the Muslim League, VCK, RSP and MDMK – have 10.5 per cent votes. Although the ruling NDA is just short of the half-way mark, the BJP is banking on the YSRCP and the BJD and some other parties to support its candidate. Both Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister YS Jagan Mohan Reddy and his Odisha counterpart Naveen Patnaik had met Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the last fortnight. While Patnaik met Modi on May 30, Reddy had a meeting with the Prime Minister last week.

According to the schedule announced by the Election Commission, the last date of nomination is June 29 and counting of votes will take place on July 21.

“The Commission has decided to maintain all Covid precautions and protocols on polling day,” Chief Election Commissioner Rajiv Kumar said at a press conference in New Delhi.

Election shall be held with the system of proportional representation by means of single transferable vote. “The value of the vote of an MP will be 700. Those in preventive detention can vote and those in jail will have to apply for parole and if they get parole, they can vote,” Kumar said.

The total value of votes for MLAs for the 16th Presidential Election is 5,43,231. The total value of votes for MPs is 5,43,200. The total value of votes of electors is 10,86,431.

The elector can mark as many preferences as the number of candidates. While the marking of the first preference is compulsory for the ballot paper to be valid, other preferences are optional. For marking the vote, the Commission also supplies a particular pen to the electors in the polling station by the designated official when the ballot paper is handed over.

“For marking the vote, the Commission will supply particular pens. The pen will be given to the electors in the polling station by the designated official when the ballot paper is handed over. Electors have to mark the ballot only with this particular pen and not with any other pen. Voting by using any other pen shall lead to invalidation of the vote at the time of counting,” Kumar said.

The MPs are expected to cast their votes in Parliament House and MLAs are expected to vote at the respective states capitals. The Secretary General, Rajya Sabha will be the Returning Officer for the elections, Kumar said.

“The Commission has also decided to appoint Assistant Returning Officers in all state capitals including NCT of Delhi and Territory of Puduchery, for making the Union for the poll and for transportation of the ballot boxes and other important election materials to and from the Election Commission. For meeting any eventuality, in case the Assistant Returning Officer is not available for any reason, a second Assistant Returning Officer is also being appointed,” Kumar said.

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