New Delhi: With 17 opposition parties picking former Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar to take on NDA's Ram Nath Kovind, the stage is set for a Dalit-versus-Dalit contest for the country's top constitutional post.
Congress President Sonia Gandhi announced the name of party leader Meira Kumar at a meeting of the 17 parties including the Left, Trinamool Congress, Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), DMK and the National Conference.
"We have unanimously chosen Meira Kumar, a former Union Minister and Lok Sabha Speaker, as Presidential candidate," Gandhi announced after the meeting. She urged all political parties to support Meira Kumar.
RJD chief Lalu Yadav said he would talk to Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar to reconsider his support to Kovind. Backing Kovind would be a "historical blunder", he said.
Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad said: "There could not have been a better candidate than Meira Kumar for the post of President."
Meira Kumar is the daughter of former Deputy Prime Minister and iconic Dalit leader Jagjivan Ram. A lawyer and a former diplomat, she was the first woman Speaker of the Lok Sabha.
According to informed sources, Gandhi, who chaired the meeting of the opposition parties, first asked Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Sharad Pawar to speak.
Pawar proposed three names -- Meira Kumar, former Maharashtra Chief Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde and Bhalchandra Mungekar -- all Dalit leaders.
Pawar was keen on Shinde but the "sense of the gathering" ultimately went with Meira Kumar.
The sources said Gandhi as well as Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee and BSP supremo Mayawati supported Meira Kumar's candidature on Wednesday.
The opposition on Wednesday suffered a blow as the Janata Dal-United (JD-U) announced support for National Democratic Alliance candidate Kovind.
Asked about Nitish Kumar's decision, Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Lalu Prasad said it was "not a fight of personalities, but that of ideology".
"Nitish Kumar said he has decided to back Kovind because he is a nice person and has been very good as Bihar Governor. But this is not a fight of personalities. We are not supporting or opposing a person.
"Our fight is of ideology and Lalu Prasad will never back out of this fight, come what may," he said.
But the JD-U decision won't have an impact on the RJD-JDU alliance in Bihar, he added.
"I will speak to Nitish Kumar and try to persuade him to reconsider this decision, to not make this historic blunder (of backing Kovind)."
Asked about Nitish Kumar's support for Kovind, Gandhi said: "I am not upset with anybody. I appeal to all political parties to support our candidate."
Nationalist Congress Party leader Praful Patel brushed aside as "rumours" reports that his party may go with the NDA.
BSP leader Satish Chandra Mishra said: "Mayawatiji had said that if the opposition proposes a better Dalit candidate (than Kovind), we would support that candidate. Today she gave her consent for the name that came up."
The CPI-M proposed the name of Gopalkrishna Gandhi, but he ruled himself out of the race after the BJP announced Kovind's name.
CPI-M General Secretary Sitaram Yechury said: "From among Meira Kumar, Bhalchandra Mungekar, Prakash Ambedkar and Shinde, everyone agreed on Meira Kumar's name without any reservation whatsoever."
The NDA, including Shiv Sena and the Peoples Democratic Party of Jammu and Kashmir, which has extended support to Kovind, commands the support of 48.93 per cent in the electoral college made up of MPs and MLAs.
With the backing of non-NDA parties like TRS (2 per cent), AIADMK (5.39 per cent), YSR Congress (1.53 per cent) and BJD (2.99 per cent), the NDA's support will cross the half-way mark comfortably to reach nearly 63 per cent, with JD-U contributing 1.91 per cent.