Sunday June 24, 2012
A one-horse presidential race
By Coomi Kapoor
Following high political drama, only one name remains in the race for presidency.
Barring any unforeseen development, Pranab Mukherjee is set to be the new Indian president.
The current finance minister is assured of support from all across the political spectrum in the presidential poll. If all goes well, the 77-year-old Congress Party veteran will be sworn in as the 13th president of the Republic on July 25 when the five-year term of Pratibha Patil comes to an end.
Though the post of the president is largely ceremonial, Mukherjee can play a vital role at the time of government formation, especially when no party wins a clear majority.
In an evenly-balanced Lok Sabha (the House of the People), the president can tilt the scales in favour of a particular combination of parties by inviting it first to explore government formation.
Since no single party is likely to win a majority in parliament in the foreseeable future, the president, thus, has come to assume an important role in vetting conflicting claims by rival coalitions for ruling the country.
However, the nomination of Mukherjee by the ruling United Progressive Alliance was preceded by high political drama.
Though he had publicly expressed a desire to become president, his party leadership had neither endorsed his candidature nor rejected it. In the meantime, several names were floated by various constituents of the ruling alliance.
According to speculation, Mukherjee was not the first choice of the Congress Party. But the law of unforeseen outcomes favoured Mukherjee.
A single act of defiance by the chief of the Trinamool Congress and West Bengal Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee, seemed to have forced the issue, virtually obliging the Congress leadership to embrace Mukherjee as its presidential candidate.
Banerjee, whose party is the second largest constituent of the ruling UPA, met Gandhi in New Delhi to discuss the likely candidates for the presidential poll. After meeting her, she met Mulayam Singh Yadav, the leader of the Samajwadi Party.
Soon afterwards, Banerjee and Yadav addressed the media, disclosing that Gandhi had suggested two names, Mukherjee and Hamid Ansari, currently Vice-President of India, and both were unacceptable to them.
Instead, the Banerjee-Yadav duo put forth their own shortlist, namely, Prime Minister Manmohan Sihgh, former president A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, and former Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee.
The Banerjee bombshell stunned the Congress leadership. It had hoped that being the chief minister of West Bengal, she would find it hard to turn down the name of Mukherjee, a fellow Bengali, for the top post. But, cleverly, while rejecting Mukherjee’s name, she proposed the name of Chatterjee.
Like Mukherjee, Chatterjee too was a Bengali who had been a leading member of the CPI( M), but had to leave the party in bitterness after he refused to resign as the Lok Sabha Speaker when the Communists opposed the civil nuclear deal with the US in the last parliament.
Also, her proposing the name of Manmohan Singh for the president’s post embarrassed the Congress leadership since it indicated a lack of faith in the prime minister.
Reportedly, Manmohan was hurt by speculation that even the Congress leadership might not be averse to the idea of him being kicked up to the president’s office. He reportedly put on hold his scheduled plan to leave for the meeting of the heads of the G-20 nations in Rio unless the Congress leadership publicly reaffirmed faith in him.
Of the three names proposed by Banerjee, there was near unanimity that her real candidate was former president Abdul Kalam. Since Yadav too had been a strong proponent of Kalam as president, the Congress leadership feared that it had to act fast to stop the Kalam bandwagon from gaining momentum.
So, coupled with pressure from the prime minister to repose faith in his leadership and the fear that Kalam might gather further support, the Congress leadership announced a day later that Mukherjee would be its candidate for president.
The backroom intrigues and deals that preceded the announcement on Mukherjee’s candidature led to the parting of ways between Banerjee and Yadav.
Only 24 hours earlier, the Samajwadi Party leader had stood with Banerjee before TV cameras to nix the name of Mukherjee and to announce their alternative panel of names. And 24 hours later, the same Yadav announced his support for Mukherjee.
This then was a rather sordid feature of politics over the presidential contest. Banerjee’s colleagues accused Yadav of betrayal and back-stabbing.
In the meantime, the Congress leadership allayed the concerns of Manmohan, publicly stating that he would continue as prime minister till the end of the current parliament in May 2014.
The fast turn of events thanks to the forceful intervention of Banerjee, who now stands isolated, had put the BJP-led Opposition National Democratic Alliance in a quandary. It was caught napping while the ruling alliance named Mukherjee as its candidate.
Despite prolonged bouts of confabulations, the NDA leaders had failed to reach a consensus on the name of the challenger against Mukherjee. Indeed, a number of constituents of the NDA wanted to support Mukherjee while some others wanted to abstain from the poll altogether.
There was some talk in the NDA of backing the former Lok Sabha Speaker, Purno Sangma, whose name had been proposed by J. Jayalithaa, the chief minister of Tamil Nadu, and Naveen Patnaik, the chief minister of Odisha. But at the time of writing, confusion prevailed in the Opposition, thus further brightening Mukherjee’s chances in the presidential poll.
A former college teacher before he plunged full-time in politics, Mukherjee will bring vast and variegated experience to the Rashtrapati Bhawan, the British-built presidential mansion spread over nearly 160ha in the heart of Lutyens’ Delhi.
First elected to the Rajya Sabha (House of the States) in 1969, he became a junior minister in the Indira Gandhi government in 1973. He has held various ministerial posts, including Defence, Foreign Affairs, Commerce, etc.
His current stint as Finance Minister has been rather lacklustre, with independent experts charging him with mismanagement of the economy. Curiously, he is widely known to be corporate-friendly, with one particular industrial group reportedly enjoying special favours.
In the Manmohan Singh Government he had emerged as its chief trouble-shooter, heading a large number of Empowered Groups of Ministers on various contentious matters.
The relatively light and ceremonial duties of president of India should ensure a well-earned reprieve from the daily hassle of grappling with numerous controversial issues thrown up by a highly fragmented polity.