By Amulya Ganguli
The Congress has unnecessarily complicated the scene for itself by failing to make a final choice till now on a candidate for the presidential poll. Yet, for once, it was in a position to do so. In fact, by floating the names of Pranab Mukherjee and Hamid Ansari, it had, in effect, been the first to place its cards on the table.
This initial success – unusual for a party which likes to dither – was the result of the BJP’s inability to get off the starting block because of its internal problems. These included Sushma Swaraj’s faux pas in jumping the gun by describing Ansari as a person lacking in stature.
Besides, its other organizational hassles such as Narendra Modi’s reluctance to attend a second national executive meeting in succession, and the uncertainty about B.S. Yeddyurappa remaining in the party, must have prevented the BJP from focussing on the presidential contest. It also had no one obvious like the old warhorse Bhairon Singh Shekhawat on the last occasion. Instead, its naming of A.P.J. Abdul Kalam was a weak shot at the goal. No wonder, the BJP’s Yashwant Sinha broke ranks to extend support to Mukherjee.
However, the hint that Mukherjee may get a wide range of support may have unnerved the dynasty, whose feudal instincts are wary of anyone with a base of his own who will not be totally dependent on the lord of the manor. For the dynasty, Pratibha Patil, who was virtually unknown outside Maharashtra when she was the party’s surprise choice in 2007, was the ideal candidate, for her gratefulness for her unexpected elevation would have deepened her loyalty to the Congress’s first family.
Mukherjee, on the other hand, is known to have a mind of his own. Moreover, he is a stickler for constitutional norms. It was this penchant for adhering to the correct procedures which made him suggest to Rajiv Gandhi after Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984 that the proper course of action would be to swear in an interim prime minister while the party met to select Indira’s successor.
However, since Rajiv regarded the suggestion as an insidious ploy to deprive him of his dynastic right to be the next head of government, life in the party was made sufficiently uncomfortable for Mukherjee to compel him to leave. But, in spite of his subsequent return and success in becoming “indispensable” as a trouble-shooter and for guiding the party through the administrative and political labyrinth – he heads as many as 24 GoMs – a question mark seems to hang over the depth of his commitment to the first family.
For the latter, the matter of loyalty has become all the more important because 2014 is expected to be the year of the anointment of Rahul as prime minister – the first from the dynasty after more than two decades. Had the Congress been on a roll, as in the first few months after the 2009 victory, the trustworthiness of the occupant of Rashtrapati Bhavan would not have assumed overriding importance because the elevation to the throne would have been expected to be a smooth affair.
But, not now when the Congress is tottering on its feet and would be lucky to get more than the 145 seats it won in 2004. Is it possible to rely wholly on Mukherjee, or even Ansari, at such a critical time for the family, if not for the party? Hence, the dithering. But, what the Congress’s failure to make up its mind has done is to encourage the new votaries of a non-UPA, non-NDA group led by Naveen Patnaik and Jayalalithaa to throw P.A. Sangma’s hat in the ring.
However, the former Lok Sabha speaker’s chances are virtually non-existent. First, his own party, the NCP, has disowned him with Sharad Pawar declaring that he will stay with the UPA. Secondly, the chances of Patnaik and Jayalalithaa expanding their group are not high. Mayawati has already opted out, Chandrababu Naidu has fallen silent and Modi, who had joined the Odisha and Tamil Nadu chief ministers on the issue of sustaining federalism, is fighting adversaries in his own party like Nitin Gadkari and Keshubhai Patel.
The only person who may have been expected to join Patnaik and Jayalalithaa is Mamata Banerjee, especially if the centre dilly-dallied on an economic package for West Bengal. But, her dwindling popularity, as a poll conducted by a Bengali television channel has shown, may not leave her with much time to play games in the presidential sweepstakes. If the BJP did not have its own problems, it might have been tempted to fish in troubled waters by supporting Sangma. But, his Christian background may be a deterrent unlike that of another Christian aspirant, P.C. Alexander, who was suspected to be a closet saffronite. (IPA Service)