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There's something about Pranab Mukherjee

Last updated on: May 12, 2012 19:17 IST

The importance of being Pranab Mukherjee

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When was the last time you saw the majority of the non-Congress political parties rooting for a Congressman as President? So why is the Congress hesitating to name him for the post? Neerja Chowdhury analyses the party's dilemma

While emerging as the frontrunner for the President's post, Pranab Mukherjee has also created a dilemma for his party leadership.

He is believed to have conveyed to the party high command that he has carried the government on his shoulders for too long and that if he cannot be made the prime minister, he would like to move on to Rashtrapati Bhavan. He has already declared that he will not contest the elections in 2014.

The Congress, however, has not made up its mind though Pranabda, as he is fondly referred to, has created a situation which could become a fait accompli for his party. Barring the Congress which still has to take a call, the political class, cutting across parties, sympathises with him and feels he would make an ideal President.

They feel he deserves to be atop Raisina Hill as he has carried the government on his shoulders for eight years, presided over Cabinet meetings when the prime minister was away, heading scores of Group of Ministers and Extraordinary GoMs on complex issues, was the ace troubleshooter for the government and the party,  be it on Telengana or Ramdev -- and is also the Congress's memory bank and constitutional wizard.

What is more, he is probably the only politician of stature today who is respected across parties. The prime minister has relied on him totally, even on matters as small, though delicate, such as where to seat Sonia Gandhi in Parliament after the party had won in 2004, and she had turned down premiership.

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Image: Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee


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Dr Singh used to called Mukherjee 'sir' in private

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Unlike former Union minister for human resource development Arjun Singh who opposed the PM within the system, Mukherjee decided to stand behind Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh, even though he must have found it difficult to work under someone who had been his junior in government, and whose appointments he himself had signed.

In fact, in the first term of the United Progressive Alliance, Dr Singh continued to address Mukherjee as 'Sir' in private, out of old habit.

Advertently or inadvertently -- and this is not without irony – Leader of the Opposition Sushma Swaraj's words helped Mukherjee's name take centrestage for the post of President, and virtually pushed former President APJ Abdul Kalam out of the presidential race, when things seemed to moving the Kalam way.

With the BJP – until then it had taken a `lie-low' stance so as not to polarise the parties along BJP-non BJP lines, to facilitate agreement on a non-Congress candidate -- openly expressing its preference for Kalam, others such as Samajwadi Party chief  Mulayam Singh Yadav, not unexpectedly, beat a hasty retreat.

It was also unusual for the usually politically savvy Sushma to make a gaffe, like commenting on the "not high enough stature" of Vice President Hamid Ansari.

Mulayam Yadav also made his preference for Mukherjee known when he rooted for a 'politician' to be the next President. Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam chief M Karunanidhi has openly come out in Mukherjee's support. So has Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar, when he said he had never made a case for a non-politician, only for consensus.

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Image: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh
Photographs: PIB

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Antony had mentioned Pranab's and Ansari's name

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All this is calculated to build pressure on the Congress high command by its allies -- and supporters.

Only West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is holding her cards close to the chest. But she will not be able to resist, if Mukherjee were to become the official candidate of the Congress, since he is from West Bengal.

For all the talk about Sonia's misgivings about installing Mukherjee in Rashtrapati Bhavan, the Congress high command has gone out of its way not to be seen to be opposing his candidature. That is why Rajya Sabha Member of Parliament Renuka Chowdhury, after stating that the government and the party could not spare him, did a volte face.

That may also explain why Defence Minister AK Antony, who was sent by Sonia to consult Karunanidhi in Chennai, had mentioned two names -- Ansari and Mukherjee -- and at the time, Karunanidhi had given his backing to both, though subsequently he openly rooted for Pranab.

There may well be a trust deficit between Mukherjee and the Congress high command. This may not be just because of what happened in 1984, when he is believed to have pitched for himself as the PM after Indira Gandhi's assassination.

However, those who know him say that he had only stipulated to Rajiv Gandhi the constitutional position that the PM's post could not remain vacant -- he was after all the number two at the time -- until it was decided politically who should succeed Indira.

He told friends later that it was senior Congress leaders Ghani Khan Chowdhury and PV Narasimha Rao who had spread the word around that he wanted to become PM, creating a rift between him and the leadership.

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Image: Defence Minister AK Antony


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Sonia may not have forgotten her experience with Kalam

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More than 1984, it could be Mukherjee's political savvy that could make the high command wary of what he might do. He knows enough about the system and how to make it work for him, or to use it to fix his opponents.

Sonia may not have forgotten her experience with Narasimha Rao and Kalam.

What might also make her cautious about him is the fact that the UPA allies, and its supporters the SP, Bahujan Samaj Party, and Opposition parties seem to be comfortable with the idea of a Congressman as President.

And all the non-Congress party leaders have been espousing the view that this time they would like a candidate for President who is not an out-and-out 10, Janpath nominee.

Sonia, if she can help it, may prefer to have someone like the non-political Ansari in Rashtrapati Bhavan. It is said that the 2014 elections will be critical for Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi and she would like to see him on track.

Though the President can only send back decisions and laws for the reconsideration of the government, if he wants to be difficult, it can be argued that he does have enough maneuverability if the mandate in 2014 is a highly fractured one.

He has the power to call anyone to form a government provided he can prove his majority on the floor of the House. But in a highly fractured polity, he may call someone to form the government and that invitation may enable the person to cobble together a majority which he did not enjoy at the outset.

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Image: Former President Dr APJ Abdul Kalam
Photographs: Reuters

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Mukherjee can make the going tough for government

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The point however is that Rahul will hardly be a candidate for PMship, in a situation where the election throws up a highly fractured result. Secondly, Mukherjee is an institution man and is unlikely to play games like former President Zail Singh did and that too at the end of a distinguished political career which earned him so much credibility that he is today an acceptable choice of the entire political class, at a time when politicians have become a dirty word.

In any case, it will be difficult for the Congress to openly spurn Mukherjee. An unhappy Mukherjee, on the wrong side, can make the going tough for the government at every turn if he so desires.

Senior Congress leaders are letting it be known that he could get "something more", if he is not made President.

Sonia was not prepared to accord him the status of deputy prime minister some years ago. Nor was she willing to entrust him the ministry of home affairs -- the only major portfolio he has not held so far -- which he was keen on.

Will she have to relent on both counts now? And will it be enough for Mukherjee?

The importance of being Mukerji is that if he is made President, the government will find it very difficult to manage without him and this may bring on early elections. On the other hand, if he is deprived of the Presidency, he is unlikely to walk into the sunset quietly. This too could unleash forces which could bring down the government. 


Image: Congress president Sonia Gandhi
Photographs: Reuters

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