June 19: Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik today sided with the NDA's presidential choice, while Opposition parties appeared to be gearing for a contest.
However, any public announcement will come only after a scheduled meeting of the Opposition leaders on June 22.
Naveen said: "Last time when the presidential elections were conducted, the BJD had proposed the name of P.A. Sangma, an eminent leader from the tribal community. Based on the BJD's request, many parties, including the BJP, had supported his nomination."
Naveen was the first leader to announce Sangma as the BJD's choice for the post. Later, the BJP and other parties had extended their support to Sangma.
"In this backdrop and the fact that Sri Ram Nath Kovind is an eminent lawyer belonging to the Scheduled Caste community, after discussing with the senior party leaders, the BJD has decided to support his candidature."
"The office of the President of India is above political considerations and the Biju Janata Dal wants to keep it above politics," Naveen said.
The Odisha chief minister had been asserting that his party was maintaining equal distance from the BJP and the Congress. Party sources made it clear that it would have given a wrong signal if the BJD had opposed a Dalit leader for the high post.
One overriding feeling among Opposition politicians today was that the government had not sincerely tried to evolve a consensus before announcing Bihar governor Ram Nath Kovind as its candidate.
The other was that the Opposition must not succumb to the government's Dalit card but field a contestant since, sources said, Kovind's Sangh background didn't sit well with expectations of a "neutral" President who would protect the constitutional scheme.
Soon after the Centre informed them about its choice, senior Opposition leaders had got in touch over the phone and decided they would reveal their strategy only after Thursday's scheduled discussions.
While Mayawati insisted that any Opposition candidate must be a Dalit too, not everyone warmed to the idea, advocating a contest based on ideology rather than caste identity. Thursday's meeting might pick a candidate.
Congress sources stressed that the Dalit factor should not affect the Opposition strategy, saying the government could not be allowed to manipulate the political discourse at its convenience. "It is the Opposition's duty to expose the government's hypocrisy (over Dalits)," a senior party functionary told The Telegraph.
He cited some of the incidents that have given the BJP an anti-Dalit image - Rohith Vemula's suicide, the Saharanpur clashes - to say: "We can't let the BJP off the hook because of this trick."
Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar's praise of Kovind's impartiality as governor and expression of "personal joy" at his selection created some confusion, but several Opposition leaders cautioned that social courtesies should not be mistaken for political statements.
Asked if the Bihar link could determine the stances of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Janata Dal United, an Opposition politician said: "No way, not at all."
Opposition sources said that Nitish had initially been in two minds because of his "personal rapport" with Kovind and the governor's "caste", but was told firmly by the Congress, RJD and the CPM that such factors should not count. The sources said that Nitish appeared to have been convinced.
Sonia Gandhi called Nitish, Lalu Prasad, Sharad Pawar, Mamata Banerjee, Mayawati and other leaders to sound them out. She also discussed the BJP's choice with her party seniors.
"We hoped the government would try to evolve a consensus.... Now there is no scope for a consensus," Ghulam Nabi Azad said after the meeting.
"They are capable of taking unilateral decisions and they did. The consultation process was a PR exercise."
Mamata, Bengal chief minister and Trinamul leader, said: "To support someone, we must know the person. The candidate should be someone who will be beneficial for the country."
She said she was "not for a moment saying Kovind is unfit to be President" but added: "I have spoken to two-three other Opposition leaders, they are also surprised. There are other big Dalit leaders in the country. Just because he was the leader of the Dalit Morcha of the BJP they have made him the candidate."
She went on: "The office of the President is a key post. Someone of the stature of (current President) Pranab Mukherjee, or even Sushma Swaraj or (L.K.) Advaniji, may have been made the candidate."
CPM general secretary Sitaram Yechury argued that the presidential election was a political battle and referred to Kovind's Sangh background.
"The Dalit factor is not an issue as the BJP has been overtly anti-Dalit and is now trying to cover it up with this symbolism," the Nationalist Congress Party's Tariq Anwar said.
"I think there should be a contest but let's see what the collective decision is."
RJD spokesperson Manoj Jha said: "The unilateral announcement is against the idea of consensus. We desperately need a person who will protect the values enshrined in the Constitution."
Mayawati too objected to the unilateral announcement. "There are better Dalit candidates. K.R. Narayanan has been a Dalit President. An apolitical Dalit would have been a better option," she said.
"But we don't have any objection to (Kovind) as long as the Opposition does not propose a better, more popular Dalit candidate."
Mayawati's insistence on a Dalit alternative triggered a debate within the Opposition, and even some Congress politicians began talking of former Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar and former home minister Sushil Kumar Shinde as possible nominees.
Some others, though, advocated an ideological fight by fielding someone like Gopal Krishna Gandhi.