Senior politicians, both national and regional, are busy finalising their personal preferences for President. The 340-room Rashtrapati Bhavan will need a new resident, as President Pratibha Patil will leave in late July. The strongest contender seems to be Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee. His abilities, surely, do work in his favour, but more important is the fact that he might be the only person around whom a consensus could emerge.
The presidential election may not have the colour and noise of a Lok Sabha poll or an Assembly election, but the political involvement is no less. Though for a ceremonial post, presidential elections have acquired significance on account of perceived political expediency at different times.
Giani Zail Singh sat on Raisina Hill when the Indira Gandhi government had to deal with the Khalistan problem and Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale in Punjab. Again, when the name of Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati started doing the rounds for the post of Prime Minister in 1997, the entire political establishment—except for the Shiv Sena—elected Dr K.R. Narayanan, the first president from the Dalit community.
Pratibha Patil’s name came up from nowhere, when D. Raja of the CPI asked, “Why not a woman candidate?” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh suggested the Marathi, who was then Governor of Rajasthan. The Congress did not want Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, then vice-president and veteran BJP leader, to win.
Mukherjee has an acceptability that cuts across political lines. In February 2009, L.K. Advani, as opposition leader, recalled in the Lok Sabha that Mukherjee had been elected a year before he himself became a member of the Rajya Sabha in 1970. Said the BJP veteran: “Ever since I was introduced to Pranab Mukherjee I have always appreciated his ability, his strength and his capability to shoulder responsibility.” Advani wondered what would have happened to the government had Mukherjee not been there!
Advani’s view is one that other BJP leaders, too, have shared at different times. Arun Jaitley, opposition leader in the Rajya Sabha, recently made a private observation that while most ministers in the UPA cabinet were either “arrogant or sulking”, only Mukherjee had “made efforts to build consensus with” the BJP.
The new resident in Rashtrapati Bhavan will have special significance because of the widespread belief that the 2014 polls will produce a hung Lok Sabha. A fractured verdict will demand greater intervention from the President. Leaders of the UPA and the NDA admit that they will definitely have to look up to the President for guidance on various issues.
A recipient of the Best Parliamentarian award, Mukherjee is seen as a legislator’s legislator. “He will not allow himself to become anybody’s tool, and is wedded to no one but the Constitution,” said a source outside the Congress. When THE WEEK once asked him about the two Indias, pat came the reply: “There is only one India... India, that is Bharat.” When someone raised the threat by religious organisations as a possible consequence of the Ayodhya verdict, Mukherjee responded again with a ‘Constitutional’ line: “Secularism in India does not mean absence or negation of religion. Indian secularism means respect for all religions.” Hindu hardliners can hardly find fault with him.
Other names doing the rounds range from former president Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam to Manmohan Singh to Union Minister Farooq Abdullah to former West Bengal Governor Gopalkrishna Gandhi to current Gujarat Governor Kamla Beniwal.
The long list also includes Janata Dal (United) president Sharad Yadav, Defence Minister A.K. Antony, architect of Konkan Railway and Delhi Metro E. Sreedharan, former Reserve Bank Governor C. Rangarajan, Chief Election Commissioner S.Y. Quraishi, Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar, former Speaker Somnath Chatterjee, Uttarakhand Governor Margaret Alva and Union Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde.
Vice-President Hamid Ansari’s name is also being raised by some quarters, albeit with a lot of caution and reluctance. A career diplomat and scholar, he had the backing of the UPA and the Left for his election in August 2007. He might have been a close second to Mukherjee, but for that last day of the Rajya Sabha session in December 2011, when the Lokpal bill was not put to vote because of “orchestrated chaos”.
A politician from a regional party told THE WEEK: “He did not endear himself to anyone in the opposition. Why did he alienate himself from regional parties that were there, trying to protect the federal structure?” The politician ruled out the possibility of the Trinamool Congress, AIADMK, DMK or even the Left supporting his candidature this time. “If we decide to field someone because he is a Muslim, why not Quraishi?” asked another leader. Advani recently lauded Quraishi for his bold stand on the Rajya Sabha polls in Jharkhand.
Ironically, the question being asked in non-Congress circles is whether Sonia Gandhi will let Mukherjee go, when she has to ensure that Rahul Gandhi is mentored by the best. This question assumes special significance against the backdrop of the Congress debacle in the UP Assembly polls.
A BJP leader mused: “Political expediency may make Sonia consider Manmohan for president, and make Mukherjee the prime minister, burying the old hatchet....” That, however, does not undermine Mukherjee’s ability to garner votes from regional parties—an edge that Manmohan might not have.
Seasoned political observers are sure that the key lies with regional parties. Especially because of the bad blood between the Centre and states over the National Counter Terrorism Centre. But, officially, all political parties are acting unconcerned about the presidential elections, even though it is round the corner. “It is too early to talk of candidates. They have not even been discussed yet, and will not be, officially, until May,” said veteran Congress leader and AICC treasurer Motilal Vora.
But quiet efforts are on, undoubtedly. Ruling party envoys are at work, unofficially, to gauge the mood in the BJP-led NDA camp and, crucially, among the regional parties including the Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party, Biju Janata Dal, Telugu Desam Party and AIADMK.
The early efforts are apparently on account of a perceptible coldness between the Congress and its main allies, particularly the Trinamool Congress, Nationalist Congress Party and DMK. That coldness is something that the BJP and its allies are hoping to exploit to their advantage.
Chances of the UPA fielding an apolitical or technocrat candidate appear slim, as politicians will want someone who can handle the 2014 election results. However, a Centre for Media Studies report published in March maintained that the UPA had a better chance of winning the presidential election if it fielded a candidate “more acceptable and beyond party lines.”
A Congress general secretary asserted: “We are looking for a consensus on our own candidate. With both the SP and the BSP on board, we are confident that the UPA candidate will make it. We could have a problem only if the non-Congress, non-BJP group decides to field their own candidate.”
Sources even suggest that SP leader Mulayam Singh Yadav might propose Mukherjee. “Mamata Banerjee will not be seen opposing a fellow Bengali for President. That kind of thing does not happen in politics,” said another observer.
In 2007, the Shiv Sena had broken from the NDA ranks to vote for Patil. The BJP expects that the same might happen to the UPA this time. The Congress, too, is aware of this possibility. “Mamata Banerjee is whimsical and we will have to watch her moves carefully,” admitted a senior Congress leader.
“The Congress cannot bulldoze other parties into accepting their candidate,” said an analyst, confident that it will be the BJP and others versus the Congress. “They will look for help from the SP, AIADMK, etc., and so will have to bring a non-Congress candidate to win. That is something they may not do.”
Currently, of the 10,98,882 votes, the Congress holds around 31 per cent and the BJP 24 per cent. The UPA holds only a little over 40 per cent of the votes; it held 57 per cent in 2007.
There is a thought that the BJP may not put up more than a token protest against Mukherjee. “Pranabda has served the party and the country so well over a lifetime,” said a Congress party worker. “So it will be a well-deserved post for him; the country will love to have him as President.” In 2007, Sonia made it clear that the Congress could not spare him. That is, in fact, the only card that may dim his chances this time, too.
Through Antony, the Congress could have given the country its first Christian president. But the recent fracas involving the Army chief, Gen. V.K. Singh, ensured that his name “vanished from any serious conversation about the party’s candidate for President”, said a source. Congress allies and regional parties, too, might not support him.
The BJP was pinning its hopes on the UP Assembly polls to help it get the numbers that would enable it to go it alone. “It was clear that we would fight if we stood a chance,” said a BJP source. “Now, we find ourselves, ironically, placed similar to the Congress. We cannot field our own candidate. But we can rally together non-Congress parties if we come up with a non-BJP name. And that is not difficult.” There are indications that the party will back Kalam, whose candidature may down go well with Mulayam, too.
Some leaders are also talking of a deal. The NDA will have its candidate as Vice-President—the election is due in August—and the UPA candidate will go to Rashtrapati Bhavan. But the hitch is that the Congress may not like to concede the chairmanship of the Rajya Sabha, where it is in minority, to the NDA. “The Lokpal bill debate in the Rajya Sabha indicated what is possible if the chairman was not favourably disposed to the Congress,” said a Congress source.
Fresh out of power, Mayawati may prefer to go with the Congress in return for using its good offices with Mulayam in UP. The SP, it is believed, will play a crucial role in helping the Congress finalise its candidate. The UPA, in return, will overlook the teething troubles of UP Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav.
Sharad Yadav is said to have explored the chances of projecting himself as the first OBC President of India. The Shiromani Akali Dal has approached the BJP to field Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal as “Vice-President, if not President, because no other leader today has spent more time in jail than Badal.”
Non-aligned parties such as the AIADMK, TDP, SP and BSP hold around 23 per cent of the votes. So one cannot rule out the possibility of them fielding their own candidate, as part of their overall federal assertiveness. In 2007, the group had unexpectedly put up Kalam for a second term, without his consent. The second term for Kalam was opposed even by the BJP, which had proposed him the first time. The goof-up over his consent, quite apart from lesser strength, botched up the show for Kalam, who is anyway understood to have expressed a desire to be freed of ceremony to pursue social interests. “He will never accept another proposal for candidature again, not from that group at least,” said a Congress source.
LEADING THE PACK
Pranab Mukherjee, Union Finance Minister
The senior-most minister in the UPA, and troubleshooter and negotiator in the Congress. The 1935-born ex-journalist and academic has handled key ministries in previous Congress regimes. The Nehru-Gandhi family loyalist is a senior CWC member and heads a number of party organisations.
Pranab’s ascendence to the top, however, was always circumscribed by roles cut out for the GenNext in the Nehru-Gandhi family. Though he was a presidential contender in 2007, Sonia Gandhi nixed it as the party and government could not spare him. His elevation could be nixed again because Sonia wants him to mentor Rahul Gandhi until 2014.
STILL WITHIN REACH
Mohammad Hamid Ansari, Vice-President
Born on April 1, 1937, in Kolkata, he is an ex-civil servant from Ghazipur in Uttar Pradesh and the grandnephew of former Congress president Mukhtar Ahmad Ansari. As VP, he ensured compensation for Gujarat riot victims. Citing procedural difficulties, Ansari prevented the Rajya Sabha from passing the Lokpal bill in 2011, saving the government much embarrassment.
As a Muslim candidate from UP with Kolkata connections, Ansari may be elevated to boost Congress prospects in UP in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. He may also find favour with Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamool Congress.
THEIR RACE, TOO
Gopalkrishna Gandhi, Former Governor of West Bengal
Born in 1945, this grandson of Mahatma Gandhi and C. Rajagopalachary had an illustrious IAS career. As Governor of West Bengal, he warned the Left government against taking action against villagers in Nandigram. The violence in Nandigram proved to be a blight in the lifeline of the Left government; but Gandhi established himself as a highly political governor. As an erudite man of impeccable integrity, he could fit the bill for the Congress and its allies, especially the recalcitrant Trinamool Congress. His OBC status (Bania) could go down well with the Samajwadi Party and the Janata Dal (U), making him the first OBC President. But the Congress needs the Left’s backing, which is unlikely.
Farooq Abdullah, Union Minister and National Conference president
In the 2007 presidential race, Farooq Abdullah got support from the Samajwadi Party, the Telugu Desam Party, the AIADMK and former Haryana chief minister Om Prakash Chautala. And, there was speculation that the Congress, too, would not oppose him in view of the goodwill that India would get worldwide if a Kashmiri Muslim became President. This time, although the Congress is an ally of the National Conference in Srinagar, enthusiasm for Abdullah’s candidature is not high after allegations were raised against him in the recent multicrore Jammu and Kashmir Cricket Association scam. Besides, his own party is going through tough times and needs him.
Sushil Shinde, Union Power Minister
Shinde is a Dalit and a veteran Congress leader from Maharashtra. In 2007, the Shiv Sena, though in NDA, voted for the first Maharashtrian President, Pratibha Patil, and a repeat could be hoped this time.
Sharad Yadav, JD(U) president and NDA convener
Perceived as the erudite face of the OBC upsurge, Sharad Yadav has been positioning himself as activist-statesman in Parliament, censuring Team Anna member Arvind Kejriwal for his utterances against MPs. He also vetoed SP leader Mulayam Singh’s contention on pre-term polls. Sharad Yadav may be chosen by the NDA, which is trying to rope in support from the non-aligned (non-BJP, non-Congress) parties. With Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar calling the shots in the JD(U), this would be a good chance for the 61-year-old Yadav to move ahead in his career.
Margaret Alva, Uttarakhand Governor
Known for her proximity to Congress president Sonia Gandhi once, Alva was ousted as general secretary after she alleged that her partymen were taking money for votes. Her presence in the Dehradun Raj Bhavan has been of help to the party. Despite its unimpressive show in the recent Assembly elections the Congress could hold its standard aloft in Dehradun with help from friends in the BSP and notwithstanding trouble within the party. But, her Catholic moorings may work against her election to the Rashtrapati Bhavan.
Karan Singh, MP
Born in 1931, Karan Singh was the sadr-i-riyasat of Jammu and Kashmir and the son of Maharaja Hari Singh, the last ruler of the state. His royal moorings are a disadvantage in the present political climate where OBC credentials are perceived as significant, especially in the run up to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, when the Congress and its allies need the support of the Samajwadi Party and the Left. He may find support from the BJP-led NDA, though.
Kamla Beniwal, Gujarat Governor
Kamla Beniwal is known for her anti-BJP (Narendra Modi) stance. The OBC credentials of the 83-year-old Congress leader from Rajasthan are a plus. And it could help the Congress shore up its electoral prospects in Rajasthan, which goes to the polls next year. Beniwal’s most memorable act as Governor was the appointment of Justice R.A. Mehta as Lokayukta without consulting Chief Minister Modi. As an administrator with clear political leanings, Beniwal could get votes from the SP, the BSP and the Left parties.
Meira Kumar, Lok Sabha Speaker
Neelam Sanjiva Reddy is the only Lok Sabha Speaker who became President of India. The daughter of former defence minister Babu Jagjivan Ram, Meira Kumar could be acceptable to the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Left.