Wednesday's shock and awe of regional leaders gave Congress leaders such a jolt that they had no choice but to quickly decide on the man who would be least opposed by its allies and adversaries, reports Sheela Bhatt.
"Dada apne dum pe Rashtrapati pad ke ummeedvar bane hai, (Pranabda has become the Presidential nominee on his own strength)," says an insider who witnessed the political drama over the July 19 Presidential election for the last three days. This insider was in touch with key Congress leaders till Thursday night.
Those who closely followed the possibility of Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee and Vice-President Hamid Ansari getting the Congress -- read party president Sonia Gandhi -- nomination will vouch that if the revolt of regional leaders had not occurred on Wednesday, June 13, Ansari had the better chance of becoming the ruling United Progressive Alliance nominee for President.
Until the last minute Mukherjee doubted if he would get Sonia's support, reveals a confidante and friend of the finance minister for many decades.
The shock and awe of regional leaders gave Congress leaders such a jolt that they had no choice but to quickly decide on a man who would be "least opposed" by its allies and adversaries.
Sonia Gandhi would not have found enough reasons to share with the public -- had such a situation come up -- on why she rejected Mukherjee and favoured Ansari. In the prevailing situation, when the Congress stock is down in the dumps, she knew her choices were limited and her critics were watching her actions closely.
It is to Sonia's credit that she did not overplay her cards and accepted her weakness to avoid a possible embarrassment in the future.
Ansari was surely in the race and the Congress was trying to make him look more attractive vis-a-vis Mukherjee. Till the morning of June 13, Ansari was given enough indication that Congress leaders would find some way to pacify Mukherjee if the finance minister was denied the Presidency.
To survive in active politics in New Delhi for fifty years is an awesome feat. It has given Mukherjee a position in politics few leaders can compete with.
The section of the Congress party that backed Ansari's candidature tried hard to find a path of compromise and retain Mukherjee in the government.
But Mukherjee clearly outsmarted Sonia's advisors at 10, Janpath. First, he made his desire to be President almost public. Then, he saw to it that none of the anti-Congress parties felt offended by his candidature. In fact, he did his homework well in advance.
Only West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had, has, and will have problems with him. Both leaders share a bitter past. Before Banerjee founded the Trinamool Congress party in the late 1990s, she felt she was not given her due in the Congress party's West Bengal unit.
Mukherjee dominated party affairs at that time. Banerjee felt that Mukherjee's politics did not really challenge the Left Front that then ruled West Bengal.
Banerjee wanted to fight the Communists upfront, on the streets, and without making secret political compromises.
Her personal opposition to Mukherjee and her political opposition to the Congress led her to go for the kill on June 13.
The events unfolded in such way that Sonia Gandhi was left with no choice but to select the candidate who was "sustainable".
Banerjee's aggression weakened the Congress and strengthened Mukherjee's candidature. In that sense, she has not been defeated by the Congress today, but she has eaten humble pie in her rivalry with her fellow Bengali.
Congress leaders wanted to buy time before the Banerjee shocker. They thought they would have taken stock and nominated its Presidential candidate after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's return from Mexico and Brazil. Their idea was whoever became the Congress candidate, credit must go to Sonia Gandhi.
But Banerjee's fury and Samajwadi Party supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav's presence at Wednesday's press conference changed the ground rules -- and that went in Mukherjee's favour.
Time favoured Mukherjee because the Congress had no time left to play more politics and keep him in government.
Also, some Congress leaders suspected a corporate conspiracy behind the Banerjee-Yadav press conference. It provoked such fear that they thought it was better to play straight and declare quickly the candidate who would get 'wider support" than any other candidate on the party's list.
When nothing works for the ruling party in New Delhi, the Central Bureau of Investigation does. One wonders if the CBI did not exist, Pranab Mukherjee may not have been beaming with joy on Friday.
For the last eight years, the fear of various cases probed by the CBI has played a deterrent against regional parties like the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party. The declaration of support from the Samajwadi Party and BSP carries no surprise in Indian politics. Otherwise, there is no political logic to strengthen the Congress' hands in such a crucial election.
In coming weeks more details will emerge why Banerjee and Yadav inserted Dr Singh's name in their list of nominees for President. Also, Yadav's flirtation with Banerjee's kind of politics has astounded Congress leaders. They also knew that he would return to his normal self the next day, as he has done since the early 1990s.
At the end of the day, the real story is that Congress leaders received first-hand evidence of the hatred that some regional leaders harbour about their party. "Sub ke roop saamne aa gaye (everyone's real character has been exposed)," a senior Congress leader told Rediff.com, at 24, Akbar Road, the party's national headquarters in New Delhi, on Friday.
As Mukherjee itches to leave for Rashtrapati Bhavan, the weaker Congress party and an indefensible UPA government looks weary. One should also note how Congress General Secretary Rahul Gandhi was missing in action when such dramatic political events unfolded in New Delhi. His absence is enough evidence that he is not ready to take a bigger and serious role in national politics in coming months.
In fact, the Congress party faces such a paucity of leaders with stature that whoever succeeds Mukherjee as Leader of the House in the Lok Sabha may not have even half the experience that he has in parliamentary and electoral politics.