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Bhairon Singh Shekhawat: The next President?
August 28, 2006
It was a muggy morning in August 2002.
Managers of the Bharatiya Janata Party were scurrying around, making sure nothing went wrong. Bhairon Singh Shekhawat was to file his papers for the post of Vice President of India at 11.00 a.m. that day. But for some reason, top BJP leaders were a little unsure of the choice.
At 10.00 a.m, Pramod Mahajan got a call from Atal Bihari Vajpayee. "Are you sure you have the right man," Vajpayee asked. "Are you sure you are not making a mistake?"
Shekhawat was a Hindi-speaking former chief minister of Rajasthan whose heart was in politics. Would such man be able to adjust to the relatively non-political office of the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha? What is more, he might have to be the candidate for Presidentship. Would he suit?
Shekhawat won that election -- in which parliamentarians of both Houses of Parliament vote -- by 149 votes against Dalit leader and former Maharashtra Chief Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde. As for whether he knew his job, on the fourth anniversary of his Chairmanship, question hour was suspended in the House as member after member paid him fulsome compliment (some went as far as to compare his sweetness to a rasgulla).
Reporters who have been covering Rajya Sabha for 20 years gave each other secret smiles. This was the first time any chairman had been felicitated in his fourth year. Obviously, politics was at work.
Buoyed by good wishes from the treasury benches and the opposition alike, Shekhawat has decided to throw his hat in the Presidential ring. This is after calculating that the National Democratic Alliance might have a very slight edge in the electoral college -- comprising the combined votes of legislators and parliamentarians in proportion to the population they represent -- that elects the President of India.
Calculating the numbers for a President's election is a tedious task but if done accurately, the margin of error is plus or minus 1,000. Take a look around you. What do you see: a large number of United Progressive Alliance-ruled state governments and a UPA majority in Parliament? Factually, that is true.
But because the determining factor in electing the President is the value of the vote of each legislator, it is the more densely populated states that have a bigger role in the election than, say, Sikkim or Mizoram.
According to current calculation, (without the boring detail), the UPA (including the Left parties) has around 1 lakh votes more than the NDA. But, the third front (non-NDA, non-UPA) parties and the NDA together have a nearly 1.5 lakh-vote edge over the UPA.
It is the NDA and anti-Congress parties that are in power currently in Bihar, Chhatisgarh, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Rajasthan, Sikkim and Uttaranchal. But this leaves out three important states where Shekhawat will have to put in considerable work if he wants to realise his ambition: Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu.
For obvious reasons, Uttar Pradesh is crucial. The Samajwadi Party-led by Mulayam Singh Yadav is, in theory, supporting the UPA, but could help a Thakur to the highest office in India for the right political signals the gesture sends.
However, in February-March 2007, UP will go for an assembly election, whereas the election for President is not till August. This could change equations.
Tamil Nadu has an overwhelming Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam representation and is unlikely to support Shekhawat, preferring to go with its central ally, the Congress. Shekhawat is due to visit Tamil Nadu after the monsoon session. He will have to put in intensive work to crack that bastion.
Maharashtra, where an alliance of the Nationalist Congress Party and the Congress is in power, could swing either way. The sniping that is going on between the allies running the government is no secret. And while industrialist Rahul Bajaj who was elected to the Rajya Sabha recently won as an independent, it is the world's worst kept secret that the BJP and NCP collaborated in his victory.
Similarly, the BJP supported the NCP in the election for a vacancy to the Maharashtra legislative council recently. Pawar and Shekhawat have an excellent personal relationship.
A lot depends on what the Congress and the Left parties are thinking about the Presidential election. One thing is clear: there will be a contest this time too and will be as bitterly fought as the last election when revered Left-backed leader Capt Lakshmi Sehgal contested against APJ Abdul Kalam in an election everyone knew she would lose.
But things are different now. Leveraging its position in the UPA, will the Left want its man in Rashtrapati Bhavan? Who will that be? Will he be a professional politician (whose chances of winning will be relatively low, given the polarisation of opinion) or a Left liberal intellectual (whom the Congress and possibly even some third front parties will support without any reservations)?
Some former NDA allies like the Assam Gana Parishad and the Left parties have already had an electoral alliance in the last assembly election, proving that the Left parties only say they would not do any deals with the NDA. The choice of candidate might be an important consideration with this uncommitted body of voters.
The Congress, if it is smart, might want to ensure dual advantage -- influencing the election in UP earlier in the year as well as the one for the President later in August. It can do this if it declares its presidential candidate around January. If it is a Dalit, and a name endorsed by the Bahujan Samaj Party, the electoral alliance of the two parties in UP could be cemented.Shekhawat is the first one to have opened his cards. But the contest has not yet been officially declared open. Any bets?