With zero growth facing Indian industry and the strong possibility of a bleak financial future ahead, the Congress's managers have to show that Sonia Gandhi's authority and charm are not on the wane. Which is why the election of the 13th President becomes crucial, says Sheela Bhatt
At this point of time one can only say that either Pranab Mukherjee or Vice President Hamid Ansari is likely to be the Congress candidate for the presidential poll.
It will be very difficult for Congress President Sonia Gandhi to push a new name and get it accepted by Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mamata Banerjee whose party's votes are a MUST for the Congress-proposed United Progressive Alliance candidate to win.
The dark horse from the Congress stable, if any comes up at this stage, will have to be a winnable candidate. Mukherjee seems to be a candidate who will surely get more than 50 per cent of the votes.
As on the morning of June 13, the Congress has not given the FINAL name to any of its UPA allies or to Mulayam Singh Yadav with who they have cut a deal on many political issues.
The delay in announcing its final choice will help the Congress by taking away maneuvering time from the anti-Congress parties.
This time there are broadly three fronts: the UPA, the National Democratic Alliance, and the regional parties that include the Bahujan Samaj Party, the Samajwadi Party, Jayalalithaa's All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, Navin Patnaik's Biju Janata Dal, the Telugu Desam Party and the Left parties etc. None of these three fronts are capable of getting its presidential candidate elected on its own.
The UPA has 42 percent votes, the NDA 28 percent, while non-UPA and non-NDA parties have 24 percent. In such a scenario the Congress is first among equals because being in power it is in a position to give and take in return for support to Sonia Gandhi's nominee.
How is the Congress poised in the process of electing the President?
The Congress is in a very delicate position. It has multiple aims to achieve. Not one of the political parties contacted by the Congress has revealed its own final preference or given a blank cheque to the Congress to support any candidate who will be proposed by Sonia Gandhi.
Meaning, the hullabaloo over "Pranab or not Pranab" is just one important stage in the much greater political battle.
Right now, with zero growth facing Indian industry and the strong possibility of a bleak financial future ahead, the Congress's managers have to show that Sonia Gandhi's authority and charm are not on the wane. If her candidate wins, it will be a tremendous advantage to Gandhi.
The election of the President is as important as it can get.
So far the Congress has tried to take into confidence some of the UPA allies and Mulayam Singh Yadav without disclosing its final choice. On June 13, Sonia Gandhi would request Mamata's support when they meet. The Congress is trying to convey the message that the party is not "arrogant" but is humble enough to take everyone into confidence before it announces the official UPA candidate.
All the regional parties, the Left parties and the Bharatiya Janata Party want their ego massaged in this game, particularly Mamata and Mulayam.
These confidence-building measures were a must to ensure that the Gandhi-nominated candidate goes to Rashtrapati Bhavan. Next, they have to ensure that whoever is declared as the Congress candidate is winnable and politically strong enough to withstand any candidate put up by the non-UPA parties. In fact, the UPA candidate, if defeated in the election, will lose only the most coveted post, but in case its candidate loses the election the government will lose its mandate to be in office.
It is true that neither Mulayam nor Mamata want an early election, so both will be flexible behind the scenes but at the same time they will not allow a free hand to the Congress.
That's why you can take it for granted that any Tom, Dick or Patil will not be made President this time.
Mulayam, Mamata can jointly put up a vice presidential candidate
Even though Sonia Gandhi will choose the Congress candidate who is expected to become the UPA plus Samajwadi Party's candidate, there could be a serious challenge to her choice if the candidate is perceived to be weak, a sycophant of the Gandhi family or a Congress crony because the government's chips are down at this point in time.
The third thing that worries the Congress, in a big way, is that Mulayam and Mamata have bowled a googly which is turning out to be deadly. They want to club the issue of selecting the President with that of the vice president. It is a clear possibility, if one looks at the number of votes, that Mulayam and Mamta can jointly put up a vice presidential candidate and ask the Congress to support them.
The negotiation of this "quid pro quo" is underway. On June 12, Mamata met Mulayam to gang up against the Congress. If united, they multiply their strength. But the Congress view is that although both are talking, there will not be any unanimity between them over the VP's name. Except for one thing: they may prefer any other Muslim candidate but Ansari as he is considered to be pro-Left by Mamata.
It is well-known that Mulayam is cozy with the Left parties, Mamata's arch-rivals. Although they parted ways during the nuclear deal debate, the presidential election may bring them closer.
The Congress wants its choice for President and vice president, both. It seems unlikely, but only if they find a mutually agreeable candidate. Let's say, hypothetically, that Mulayam says he will support Sonia's choice of President provided he is considered for the vice president's post. How will the Congress deal with such a request?
Leave aside Mulayam's candidacy, if Mamata and he agree on a credible and dignified name for the post of vice president, the Congress will have difficulty in finding a better candidate to counter it.
Interestingly, a morning newspaper reports that Mamata's choice for vice president is Subhas Chandra Bose's niece, Krishna Bose.
As soon as the Congress's candidate is announced -- say, Pranab Mukherjee -- the non-Congress parties will take stock. The NDA and regional parties would then have many rounds of talks to evaluate Sonia Gandhi's candidate. How fair is he/she likely to play after the 2014 elections? Is he the typical Gandhi family loyalist? His caste/religion credentials will also play a big role. Only after such consideration will the non-Congress parties decide their own preference.
The Bharatiya Janta Party has formed a committee of four headed by L K Advani -- the others being Nitin Gadkari, Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley -- to handle the crucial talks on the presidential elections with other parties.
What are Pranab's strengths?
The way things have unfolded, the question is, why not Pranab? The political phase to discuss why should Pranab be made President in the first place has already passed. Are Pranab's merits overestimated? The Congress, particularly Sonia Gandhi, will have difficulty in convincing why she should refuse Pranab his chance of a lifetime.
In the political world of New Delhi where mediocrity is becoming the norm, Pranab is respected because he knows contemporary history, he is above petty verbal debates and is a leader who can give very valuable reference to context to help solve current problems. He has done it all and seen it all. He is more of a nationalist and less of Bengali. He is politically savvy, socialist, wise and stable. On many vital issues he is non-committal, on some issues he is centrist, he can navigate difficult waters and digest success without boasting. He is disliked by many Western-educated brains around Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Corporate India finds him an obstacle.
He has not adopted well to life online. His elephantine memory is awesome. In the early 'eighties he was known as 'Mr Ambani' but then two generations have passed and Pranab has proved that he is now 'Mr Dependable' in running the government. Although in last eight years he has not really helped to solve the burning issues of the country, the media is kind to him. He is being helped by the media hype built around his possible candidacy. Critics are relatively kind although The Times of India in a recent editorial blasted him by saying: 'It's also true that Mukherjee hasn't really been the best finance minister the country ever had. The economy has plummeted to an all-time low since 1991 and another finance minister may well do better in Mukherjee's stead.'
Surprisingly, Pranabda didn't hide his desire to become President, and expressed his thought process well in advance to many people in New Delhi. He very well knows why he won't become the prime minister. After de facto running this government, this could be his ambitious last stop in a 50-year political career.
In fact, if one sees the list of top 10 powerful ministers in the government, he is the only one who has grown in stature. P Chidambaram, Kapil Sibal and Salman Khurshid's public image has shrunk terribly in the last eight years but Pranabda is, rightly or wrongly, appreciated as the solution-seeker for the government. In the Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs, his voice carries more weight than Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's. Sonia Gandhi is unlikely to grasp even 10 percent of the historical events of the last 50 years in the Indian subcontinent that are stored in Pranab's memory bank.
The conservative politician, a quietly religious Brahmin, and a very classical Congressman who walked with Indira Gandhi during her Emergency days is unlikely to rebel if he is NOT nominated as Congress candidate -- after all, his son Abhijit Mukherjee is slowly growing within the party. Pranab has a fantastic past linked to the Congress and his next generation is already part of the party. His half-hearted effort to start his own party remains the only aberration.
However, former President APJ Abdul Kalam has reportedly said that he would not like to contest the election unless he is the consensus candidate of all parties.
Many observers say that IF he is pitted against Pranabda, he could pose a formidable challenge.
What about Vice President Hamid Ansari?
There is not an iota of doubt that he is a blue-blooded Congressman. His father's tauji was Congress president Mukhtar Ahmad Ansari and his father went to jail on Gandhiji's call. Sure, he was close to Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the Left parties as well but he is essentially a Congressman. He stands a chance because he has spread positive vibes in the last five years. Second, he is a Muslim who is seen as a safe bet. Notwithstanding the fiasco at midnight during the Lokpal bill debate in the Rajya Sabha, he is quite sought after by members of the Upper House.
The most important thing in the current debate is that he is the second choice of almost all regional parties who are crucial in the election's outcome. He is the first choice of the Janata Dal-United and he could be the first choice of many other parties who don't want Pranab in Rashtrapati Bhavan. The latter is too political a personality and secretly many regional leaders who are nursing an ambition to become prime minister would favour Ansari over Pranab.
Ansari's intermediaries have met the BJP, too. His problem is that his actual political experience pales when compared to Pranab because Ansari was a career diplomat all along. How can he be compared to Pranab who has presented seven annual budgets?
Ansari, however, could be a strong contender if he rebels and becomes the NDA candidate against Sonia's candidate. Then there could be a close contest. But that is NOT going to happen, say people who know Ansari well. He is considered too sophisticated to plunge into such a high-stakes gamble.
So, who is going to be President?
Get past the obsession, seriously. The President's selection is important but think what next.
If Pranabda goes to Rashtrapati Bhavan, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is likely to become vulnerable.
But if Pranabda remains in government he will be in a sulk and will be seriously defamed for India's poor economic performance.
A section in the Congress is, already, itching to target Prime Minister Singh and shift all failures to his account. If at all Pranabda becomes the presidential candidate, Sonia Gandhi may like to execute her bigger plans to overhaul the Cabinet and the Prime Minister's Office.
Notwithstanding Standard and Poor's negative report on India, she has no choice left but to act, now.
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