Lawmakers across India voted on Monday to elect the country’s 14th President with Union minister M Venkaiah Naidu declaring that ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) candidate Ram Nath Kovind would win with a “comfortable and respectable margin” against opposition-backed Meira Kumar.
“Kovindji will win with a comfortable and respectable margin,” Naidu said before voting.
Polling to choose the successor of incumbent Pranab Mukherjee, who demits office on 25 July, started simultaneously in both Houses of the Parliament in the national capital and state assemblies at 10 am.
All elected MPs and MLAs are eligible to cast their vote through secret ballot.
As voting picked up, many MPs, including women members, were seen queuing up in the Parliament House outside the polling booth in Room No 62 for the voting that closed at 5 pm.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah were among the first to cast their votes in the Parliament. Modi, clad in a beige colour sleeveless jacket over a white kurta-pyjama, reached the Parliament premises early to vote on Monday, also the first day of the over three-week monsoon session of the Parliament.
The prime minister said the session was expected to herald in a new hope for India. “Today the monsoon session begins. Like the monsoon brings hope, this session also brings the same spirit of hope,” he said.
Shah, who is an MLA from Gujarat, was allowed to cast his vote in the Parliament. Congress president Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul also voted.
State Assemblies saw brisk voting
In state assemblies, polling began on a brisk note in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, as legislators voted in the first three hours of polling.
Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal led the AAP lawmakers to vote. In Punjab, Chief Minister Amarinder Singh had called all Congress legislators in the state for breakfast before the voting. The Congress legislators later gathered at the Punjab Bhawan for a meeting on the issue.
In the Haryana Assembly, ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) legislators Kamal Gupta and Latika Sharma were among the first voters. Tamil Nadu chief minister E Palaniswami was among the first voters at the Assembly complex in Chennai. He was followed by house speaker P Dhanapal, DMK’s MK Stalin and former chief minister O Panneerselvam.
Himachal Pradesh Assembly saw 100 percent voting as the state became the first to complete the election process.
100 per cent polling recorded in voting for #PresidentialPolls in Himachal with all 67 MLAs casting their vote.
— Press Trust of India (@PTI_News) July 17, 2017
Talking to media persons, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, whose party had come out in support of Opposition’s candidate, said, “We voted for Meira to register our protest against ‘present atrocities’ in the country.” The TMC leader also slammed the NDA government over the Goods and Services Tax (GST) as well as the 8 November, 2016 decision to demonetise old notes of Rs 500 and 1,000.
Threat of cross voting
The Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) dismissed reports that its MPs and MLAs were voting for NDA candidate Ram Nath Kovind. “The rumours are false. We are voting for our candidate Meira,” NCP spokesperson Nawab Malik told Hindustan Times. On the other hand, the Tripura branch of TMC decided to vote against Meira and backed Kovind.
The Samajwadi Party was also a divided house with Mulayam Singh and Shivpal Yadav supporting Kovind while the Akhilesh Yadav faction backing Meira.
The Election Commission put up a total of 32 polling stations — one in Parliament House Room No 62 and rest one each in state legislative assemblies — for the polls. The ballot boxes will be brought to Delhi for counting on 20 July, when the results will be declared.
A total of 776 MPs and 4,120 MLAs are eligible to vote. The total value of votes of the electoral college is 10,98,903. The NDA has 5,37,683 votes, with the shortage of around 12,000 votes.
However, in the electoral arithmetic, Kovind has a distinct advantage over Meira, with non-NDA parties like Janata Dal (United) and Biju Janata Dal (BJD), who are not allied with BJP, deciding to vote for him. Kovind is slated to cross the halfway mark and get about 63 percent votes.
In the electoral college each MP and MLA is allocated a value to determine the vote value of an MLA, it is calculated on the basis of the population of the state (as per 1971 Census) to which the MLA belongs. Hence, the value of the vote of an MLA remains the same within his/her state but varies across different states. For instance, the value of an Uttar Pradesh MLA is 208 while that of a Sikkim MLA is 7. The sum total of the value of all MLAs’ votes is equal to the value allocated to votes of all the MPs combined. All the MPs are allocated the same value for their vote.
While 2,180 MLAs and 530 MPs support the NDA candidate, 1,628 MLAs and 232 MPs belonging to 17 Opposition parties back Meira.
Kovind, the former Bihar governor, has a numerical advantage over Meira, who is a former Lok Sabha speaker , as the numbers are stacked in favour of the ruling NDA. The BJP and allies have nearly 63 percent of the votes while the Congress-led opposition has a little over 35 percent. Independents and other smaller parties, who have not made their choice known, have two percent of the votes. If elected, Kovind will be the second Dalit President of India after KR Narayanan, who held the post between 1997 and 2002.
According to political commentator, Sanjay Singh while the outcome of the election is a forgone conclusion, the BJP leadership is not taking it easy. It is keen to send out a message that the Opposition is disunited and Modi’s candidate has support from across the party lines.
Meira appeals to parties to vote according to conscience
Opposition candidate Meira requested members of the electoral college to “heed the inner voice of their conscience” and vote in the best interest of the country. “This ideology is of social justice, inclusiveness, secularism, transparency, freedom of expression, freedom of press and total destruction of the caste system. This is the ideology which binds India together. So, it is very important that we protect and preserve it,” the five-time Lok Sabha MP had said on Sunday.
Her son Ansul said that it was not a personal fight “but a fight of ideologies”. “The forces which are present should be decimated. If it’s just about numbers then why are we going through the whole process. The winner can be announced earlier based on the parties’ support. We are excited… We are part of it. I have travelled with my mother,” Ansul said.
However, Meira’s pitch for votes according to conscience can backfire. Singh argued that such an argument would not work as political parties cannot issue whip and the voting is secretive.
“Mark Tejashwi Yadav’s words as he expressed his anguish over cross-voting. Although he linked this with ruling NDA’s insecurity in the polls but it was not difficult to make an easy reading of the voting pattern,” he wrote.
Sreemoy Talukdar added that the debate around the presidential campaign showed the immaturity of India’s democracy. “It said little about the maturity of our democracy when the ongoing debate around presidential polls was around the caste identity of the contesting candidates, not their achievements. Kovind distinguished himself as a lawyer and has a long career as an administrator and a Parliamentarian. Ex-speaker of Lok Sabha, daughter of Babu Jagjivan Ram, has a similar stellar career to boast of. But all the commentaries and debates so far have focused on which candidate is more ‘Dalit’ than the other,” the author rued.
Will Kovind help NDA pass key legislations?
While Kovind’s Dalit background may have been a reason for his elevation, the former Bihar governor can also help NDA get his assent on key bills, especially through the ordinances route.
The NDA government would like Kovind in the Rashtrapati Bhavan to pass bills like Gujarat’s GCOCA bill, which had been rejected by Kalam, Pratibha Patil and Pranab Mukherjee. First passed by the Narendra Modi-led Gujarat government in 2003, the bill has repeatedly been rejected over concerns regarding certain aspects of the bill.
Kovind was a practising advocate in the Delhi High Court and the Supreme Court before he jumped into the political arena. The 71-year-old had also represented India at the United Nations General Assembly in 2002. Additionally, Kovind had also been a Rajya Sabha MP between 1994 and 2006, which gives him legislative experience too.
With several key reforms, especially in the economy, yet to be taken in the next two years of the Modi government, Kovind’s counsel may help the Centre.
In the Monsoon Session this year, there are 79 bills which are to be passed in both Houses of the Parliament. With Kovind in the Rashtrapati Bhavan, Modi government may look for a speedy passage of these bills.
With inputs from agencies