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A behind-the-scenes look at the presidential poll drama

Last updated on: June 16, 2012 15:12 IST
Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee

The media's obsessive coverage of the Presidential election lost sight of a few pertinent points thrown up in the chaos and confusion, says Seema Mustafa

The mood in television studios shifted with the minute, with the morning heralding a doomsday scenario for the Congress and the afternoon screaming 'victory' for Congress president Sonia Gandhi and her party managers.

Every little comment was seized upon to draw wild conclusions, often quite contrary to the truth. The woes of India -- including the massive water shortage staring us in the face -- were discarded for 24-hour coverage of not even the election, but the selection of a candidate for the Rashtrapati Bhavan.

The story began somewhere here: Sonia could not really make up her mind whether the party candidate should be her Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee or Vice President Hamid Ansari. She seemed to prefer the VP, but could not get away from Mukherjee's declared keenness to get into Rashtrapati Bhavan now that he was certain he would never be her choice for prime minister.

So the party did not formally announce either, but the adept managers were instructed to let it be known to the media that these were the two chosen ones. However, the process of consultation continued and in her talks with the allies the Congress president left the issue wide open, seeking their views without really indicating her preference.

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Mukherjee felt the tension of possible rejection

Last updated on: June 16, 2012 15:12 IST
Nationalist Congress Party leaders Sharad Pawar and PA Sangma

If anything she seemed to be leaning a little in Ansari's favour. Mukherjee felt the tension of possible rejection and started meeting select journalists to let them know that he was a determined candidate and if the Congress let him down at this stage, then.

The rest was never really spelt out, but the enthusiastic media rushed to fill in the blanks and let it be known that Mukherjee could walk out of the party if it did not support him.

Meanwhile, another hopeful, PA Sangma, became the choice of two regional parties -- the Biju Janata Dal and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in a clear indication that they were quite in the mood for a contest.

And that in the confusion created by the Congress's indecision that Sangma could become a serious candidate. The Bharatiya Janata Party did not quite reject this move, and indicated possible support for Sangma if the circumstances worked out in his favour.

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Mulayam played his cards right

Last updated on: June 16, 2012 15:12 IST
Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav

The Left, of course, continued to maintain a studied silence, and except for former Communist Party of India general secretary AB Bardhan's suggestion that someone should field a Dalit woman, there was no move from the Communists to even float a worthwhile name.

They had decided not to muddy the waters, including their own, by joining the cacophony.

Trinamool Congress leader Mamta Banerjee sensed an opportunity. And fed up with the Congress efforts to woo the Samajwadi Party to negate her influence on the United Progressive Alliance, she rushed to Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav to work out a 'deal'.

The wily Yadav was also willing to give the Congress a jolt and joined Mamata in declaring three candidates for the presidential post -- Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, former Speaker Somnath Singh, and former President APJ Abdul Kalam.

The first was to light a fire under the Congress and critique the performance of the prime minister by suggesting he was fit for the ceremonial post; the second was of course a non-serious attempt to irritate the Left whose relationship with Chatterjee remains strained; and the third was a plausible name with the intention of convincing the sceptics that the two were serious in contesting the Congress choice for President.

The Congress, that was until then taking no position at all, was galvanised into action. In the rush and hurry, the party finally announced Pranab as its candidate, but that too after he made a few telephone calls and was able to convince Sonia that he had the necessary support.

One of the newspapers was not too far wrong in quoting a 'source' as saying that Pranab was of the view that he had done all the work to make himself the President-elect with little help from the party.

Mulayam, happy that he had succeeded in making the Congress aware of his power and influence, agreed to go along, leaving Mamata isolated.

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Mulayam and Mamata did everyone a favour

Last updated on: June 16, 2012 15:12 IST
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee

Until last heard of, she was lashing out at all, but again the media has gone wrong in presuming that her relationship with the UPA is over. Far from it -- neither she nor the Congress at the Centre will let this relationship end.

Several political signals emerged from the entire drama.

One, the Congress is its own worst enemy and its indecisiveness is proving extremely costly, to the party and often to the nation. A simple issue assumed the dimensions of a war, created solely by the Congress that could have declared Pranab at its candidate right at the very beginning, and spared him and itself much grief.

Two, the regional parties are quite confident of their own strength and although it was a momentary ruse, they again made it clear to the Congress and the BJP that they were quite able to make their own decisions now.

Three, that no one is willing to rock the boat for an early election at this state. The possible exception could be Mamata but when the chips are down it is not certain whether she too will plunge into the vagaries of an early poll.

Four, the BJP is in no position to turn a Congress mistake into an opportunity. It has been at best a bystander in this issue, trying to fire from the shoulders of individuals and the state parties without much success. Bereft of a strategy and sufficient support, it has been unable to mark its presence in the presidential polls, at least so far.

Five, Sonia not left either Pranab or her prime minister too happy in the process. Her unwillingness to defend her colleagues in times of crisis has cost her considerable goodwill within the party, although of course no one has the independence or the ability to even indicate this.

Pranab might have thanked her and the party for selecting him but in a sense he selected himself with the support of others; and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh could not be happy with the total silence of the party when he was virtually humiliated by the SP-TMC who wanted him to be, as the popular phrase goes, 'kicked upstairs'.

What should have been a routine, sober election -- with or without contest -- was turned into a high voltage drama with the media of course at its voyeuristic best.

Perhaps, Mulayam and Mamata did everyone a favour with their announcement, as otherwise the drama would have dragged on till the penultimate day with speculation driving the news completely.

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Last updated on: June 16, 2012 15:12 IST

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