New Delhi: The opposition on Thursday unanimously decided to field Meira Kumar, a dalit, as its joint candidate for the presidential election against NDA's dalit activist Ram Nath Kovind, with 17 parties supporting the former Lok Sabha speaker's candidature.
The decision was taken at a meeting of the 17 non-NDA parties in Parliament House Library, with the leaders endorsing the name of the former minister and diplomat, whose father, ex-deputy prime minister Jagjivan Ram, was often hailed as one of the tallest dalit leaders in the country.
"We have 17 opposition leaders present here and all of us have decided to jointly field Meira Kumar as a candidate for the forthcoming election for the president of India," Congress president Sonia Gandhi announced after the meeting.
Asked to comment on Nitish Kumar's JD(U), which is supporting Kovind and stayed out of meeting, she said, "We do hope that other opposition parties join us." Gandhi added that she was "not upset with anybody".
Her party colleague, senior Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad, said Kumar had been "selected unanimously". All the 17 parties had proposed her name, he said.
He added Kumar was the "illustrious daughter" of former defense minister Jagjivan Ram.
"There could not be a better candidate than her," he said.
CPM's Sitaram Yechury said "we are appealing to everybody" to support her.
Lalu to meet Nitish
After the meeting Lalu Prasad of the RJD said he would meet Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar and "appeal to him again to rethink" his party's decision to support the NDA nominee, which he called a "historic blunder".
He also said there was no threat to the Bihar government, a coalition of the JD(U), RJD and Congress.
BSP's Satish Chandra Misra said his party leader Mayawati had earlier said if there was a "better dalit candidate" (than Kovind), the person should be fielded by the opposition.
"Meira Kumar is a better candidate," Misra quoted the BSP leader and former UP chief minister as saying.
The brief meeting of the opposition parties started with an address by Gandhi where she stressed the need for opposition unity in putting up a joint candidate.
She then gave the floor to NCP leader Sharad Pawar, who said the names of three dalit leaders – Kumar, former minister Sushilkumar Shinde and former Maharashtra MP Bhalchandra Mungekar – had been discussed for the top post.
When many in the group said Kumar was the best possible candidate, Gandhi proposed the name of the former speaker.
Earlier, Yechury had put forward the name of Prakash Ambedkar, but few among the leaders seconded him.
He also told the gathering that former diplomat-governor Gopalkrishna Gandhi, who was earlier being considered as a joint opposition candidate, had also suggested after the NDA named Kovind that the opposition put up a dalit candidate.
The meeting was attended by a galaxy of leaders, including former prime minister Manmohan Singh, Congress leaders Azad, Mallikarjun Kharge and Ahmed Patel, NCP's Pawar, RJD's Prasad, Left leaders Yechury and D Raja, DMK's Kanimozhi and the National Conference's Omar Abdullah.
Though Trinamool Congress's Mamata Banerjee, BSP's Mayawati and SP's Akhilesh Yadav, who were present at the last opposition meeting held on May 26, were not present, their representatives attended the meet. Derek O' Brien represented the Trinamool, Ramgopal Yadav, the SP and Misra, the BSP.
There were also representatives from the JD(S), RSP, JMM, Kerala Congress, IUML and the AIUDF of Assam.
Though the JD(U) skipped the meeting, RLD chief Ajit Singh was there, making up for the numbers.
Most of the leaders were present at the May 26 luncheon meet hosted by Gandhi at the same venue.
The Congress said it was "proud" that the party had fielded its second dalit candidate and the second woman for the post of the president.
Azad urged the leaders, especially those who had traveled from their states to Delhi, to sign Kumar's nomination papers as proposers or seconders before returning home.