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Who will Modi pick to succeed Pranab?

By R Rajagopalan
May 04, 2017 16:15 IST
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Given Modi's penchant for springing a surprise, the BJP nominee for President could be anyone.
The only thing certain is that it will be an RSS person, reports R Rajagopalan.

IMAGE: Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Pranab Mukherjee at the forecourt of Rashtrapati Bhavan. Photograph: Shahbaz Khan/PTI Photo

That Congress President Sonia Gandhi has gone into overdrive for the Presidential election is well known.

What is not known is the strategy being charted by Gandhi to ensure a President and vice- president 'acceptable to the nation.'

Who will it be is the question that is being debated furiously in New Delhi's corridors of power.

According to Communist Party of India-Marxist General Secretary Sitaram Yechury, who has already met Sonia to discuss the Presidential election, her game plan can be summed up thus: "Let the BJP first declare its Presidential candidate, and accordingly the common candidate of the entire Opposition will be announced."

In other words, let the BJP make the first move.

In the meantime, it will also give the Opposition, which is currently divided as always, time to paper over its cracks and forge unity.

The present divisions in its ranks are too well kwown.

West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress President Mamata Banerjee, upset at being sidelined by the Congress, is trying to bring together leaders like Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik of the Biju Janata Dal and other smaller parties.

Mamata's differences with the Communists are too well known to bear repetition. So will it mean the Opposition may end up putting up two candidates?

The Election Commission has internally readied a calendar of events following a tentative suggestion from the secretaries general of the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha that the Presidential election will be announced in the middle of June.

Accordingly, Chief Election Commissioner Dr Nasim Zaidi is expected to announce on June 16 that the Presidential election will take place on July 19.

As Dr Zaidi is set to retire in July, the name of the next President will in all likelihood be announced by his successor.

This schedule suits the BJP just fine, as it does not want to show its cards too soon.

The BJP parliamentary board will take a call on the election around June 10, party President Amit Shah told mediapersons recently.

"Let us open up the names by the first week of June," he is believed to have told a select group of journalists.

By itself, the BJP does not have the required numbers to see its nominee ensconced in Rashtrapati Bhavan, and has to depend on allies and friendly parties.

It has informally initiated coordination with three regional parties -- the two factions of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the Telangana Rashtra Samithi and Patnaik's BJD.

TRS chief and Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrasekhara Rao has assured the BJP of the party's 1.25% of vote share, courtesy its 17 MPs and 62 MLAs.

Similarly, the two AIADMK factions have let it be known to a BJP intermediary that they are ready to go along with the BJP.

While the ruling faction's V K Sasikala and T T V Dinakaran are yet to commit their support, Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami told his cabinet recently that they will have to work with the Centre given the drought and the many CBI, ED and income-tax cases being faced by them.

Similarly, BJP intermediaries are confident that the O Pannerselvam faction, with its 10 MPs and eight MLAs, will vote for its candidate.

As for the BJD, the BJP has been in touch with Naveen Patnaik and hopes he will realise that an alliance with Mamata will only go against his party's interests.

Once these three parties firm up their support, the BJP is expected open up on its candidates.

While senior BJP leaders are convinced that for the first time a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh personality will be elected President of India, all Amit Shah would say is that it could be a 'he' or a 'she'.

As for the candidates themselves, Vice-President Hamid Ansari has categorically communicated to various political parties that he is not in the race.

Having served for ten years as vice-president, he does not want to be defeated by the BJP nominee.

The Congress has three names in mind, including former Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar.

Sonia Gandhi, it is said, is keen on seeing Nobel Laureate Dr Amartya Sen, a non-political person, in Rashtrapati Bhavan.

While the Opposition leaders she has spoken to are agreed upon Professor Sen, others feel he is not enough of a draw for undecided parties and will hence lose to the BJP.

"His name will not attract votes, but distract," summed up a senior Congress leader.

Meanwhile, the Janata Dal-United wants its chief Sharad Yadav as the common candidate, but the chances of all 14 political parties agreeing to him are bleak.

Another Sharad -- Pawar -- was said to be acceptable to the Opposition, but the Maratha leader has already withdrawn himself from the race.

What seems certain from the Opposition camp for now is that the Congress may not put up its own candidate, for only the second time since 1947.

It broke ranks with the Opposition in 2002 to back the NDA candidate, A P J Abdul Kalam.

From the BJP's side, while it is well known that the final decision will be taken by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, the three names floating about in New Delhi circles are Union Minister Tanwar Chand Gehlot, Jharkhand Governor Draupadi Murmu and Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan.

Given Modi's penchant for springing a surprise -- he did it in Haryana with M L Khattar, and then in Uttar Pradesh with Yogi Adityanath -- one can be certain that the final choice will be none of these three names.

The only thing certain is that the BJP nominee will be from the RSS.

Modi believes the 2014 mandate was not just for him, but for the election of a staunch Hindutva personality as the next President of India.

He agreed as much when this correspondent asked him recently about the 2014 Lok Sabha election results and its impact on the Presidential election.

Senior journalist R Rajagopalan has reported on five Presidential elections from New Delhi.

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