Members of parliament and legislators in 31 states today turned out in large numbers to vote for the next president of India, which happens to be a toss between former Lok Sabha speaker and opposition nominee Meira Kumar and NDA candidate and former Bihar governor Ram Nath Kovind.
With the voting coinciding with the first day of the monsoon session of parliament, the turnout was impressive at the parliament house. The Election Commission (EC) later announced that the counting of votes would begin at 11 a.m. on July 20. President Pranab Mukherjee’s term ends on July 24.
While some of the smaller states like Himachal Pradesh witnessed 100% voting, the turnout was high in the bigger states too. In Tamil Nadu, the voting ended in a little over two hours as 232 MLAs, a union minister and a Kerala MLA all turned up early to cast their votes.
In a statement late in the evening, the EC said out of the total of 771 members of Parliament who were entitled to vote – as four seats are lying vacant and one was disqualified – a total of 768 had cast their votes. Thus the voter turnout of MPs was 99.61%.
In the assemblies too a high voter turnout of 99.37% was witnessed, as out of a total of 4109 members of legislative assemblies who were entitled to vote, 4083 exercised their franchise.
The electoral college for the election comprised all MPs and MLAs with a total strength of 10,98,903 votes. While Kovind is expected to corner a large share of these votes in view of the backing that he received from nearly 40 political parties, Kumar, with the support of 17 parties, kept urging the voters to vote as per their conscience in this “ideological battle” in which parties are not allowed to issue whips and thus cross-voting is common place.
In a last ditch effort to swing the votes her way, she made an appeal today as well: “Today is a very important day. Today the collegium will take a decision. This contest is to fight for social justice, transparency, freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of press. It’s an ideology that binds us together. I ask members of collegium to pay heed to the voice of their conscience and keep the best interest of the country in mind.”
Though the hunt for the next president of India had begun with the ruling BJP at the Centre talking about the need for finding a consensus candidate and the party then nominating union ministers Venkaiah Naidu, Rajnath Singh and Arun Jaitley to hold parleys with the opposition on the issue, after just one meeting with the opposition leaders the BJP had suddenly announced the name of Kovind and taken the opposition camp completely by surprise.
While Janata Dal (United) leader Nitish Kumar had subsequently walked out of the opposition camp and supported Kovind’s candidature, his name was also backed by other parties like Biju Janata Dal, Telangana Rashtra Samiti, Telugu Desam Party and factions of All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. Even Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati had backed him as he was a Dalit candidate but later she turned towards Meira Kumar, as the Congress and other opposition parties also decided to field a Dalit leader.
Even today Mayawati sounded upbeat as she turned up to cast her vote. “After the election, who so ever wins, it is going to be a Dalit President. So, it is great for the country,” she declared.
A similar view was expressed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi yesterday when terming this a “historic” election, he had stated that “possibly this is the first time that no party has made futile statements on the presidential candidate of another party. Every party has respected the dignity of the election. This is the maturity of our democracy. Now, we have to make sure no vote goes to waste.”
In parliament, the polling booth was set up in room no. 62 and most prominent leaders, including the prime minister, cast their votes before the session began. The MPs had started queuing up outside the room even before the voting started at 10 and there was a constant stream of members who kept coming in thereafter.
The EC had in view of the ink controversy in the Rajya Sabha elections in Haryana last year, introduced unique ‘serial numbered special pens of violet ink’ this time for marking the ballots this time. These pens have been procured from Mysore Paints and Varnish Ltd, which also supplies indelible ink for the elections.
Outside every voting chamber, polling staff were stationed to hand over one such “ECI special pen” each to every voter and these were also collected by them once the voters emerged from the chamber.
In another first, “special posters” giving out the do’s and don’ts were put out by the EC this year to ensure a peaceful poll.
In all, the EC had set up 32 polling stations, one in parliament, and one each in every state legislative assembly for the election. The ballot papers were also printed in two colours – green for use by MPs and pink for the legislators in the states. Each ballot paper had two columns, the first containing the names of candidates and the second for marking preferences by electors.
The EC had printed the ballot papers in English and Hindi for use by MPs and in official languages of the state and in English for use by MLAs. It had also appointed 33 observers for the polls of whom two were deputed in parliament and one each in the states.
The EC had also permitted 14 Rajya Sabha members and 41 Lok Sabha members to vote in state legislative assemblies instead of parliament and had similarly authorised 5 MLAs to exercise their vote in parliament and 4 MLAs to vote in other legislative assemblies of other states.
In all the states too the voter turnout was good. With all the state parties deciding to vote one way or the others, the members were under obligation to turn up for the secret ballot.
In West Bengal, chief minister and Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee declared that she was voting against the “atrocities” of the BJP. “We are voting for Meira Kumar because it’s a vote against the atrocities of the Bharatiya Janata Party, violence in the name of cow vigilantism, interference in federal structure… It’s a vote against injustice,” she said.
The day also saw a split emerging in some parties. While Samajwadi Party supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav had urged its members to vote for Kovind, his son and former Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav had pitched his support for Kumar.
In Delhi, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal led his party to voting for Kumar in the election even though Congress had kept Aam Aadmi Party out of the committee of opposition parties terming it the B-team of BJP and an off-shoot of Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh. His deputy Manish Sisodia said the party had announced earlier that it would back Kumar.
With reports of cross-voting circulating, some of the parties like Nationalist Congress Party clarified their position. Its leader Nawab Malik said the party was supporting Kumar’s candidature. However, another leader of the party, Praful Patel, insisted that the outcome was a foregone conclusion. Stating that Kovind will win, he said, “there is no rocket science involved in this prediction”.