The Foot That Doesn’t Fit Any Shoe

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He might deserve it. But probably won’t get it. Ashok Malik on why Pranab Mukherjee never gets the top job

A tired man Pranab will not mind a peaceful last innings
A tired man: Pranab will not mind a peaceful last innings, Photo: AFP

NO BENGALI has ever been president of India. The closest this came to happening was in 1982 when the Opposition parties — right to left — nominated Professor Hiren Mukherjee of the CPI as a joint candidate against the overwhelming favourite, Zail Singh of the Congress. As it happened, despite being a multi-term MP and a political and academic veteran, Mukherjee was declared ineligible to contest because his name was missing from the electoral rolls. Justice HR Khanna, dissenting hero of the Emergency, became the Opposition candidate instead and was trounced by his fellow Punjabi.

What Mukherjee couldn’t have achieved in 1982 — he couldn’t have won, even if he’d actually contested, such was the Congress’ majority in the Electoral College — is a prize that 30 years later lies within tantalising reach of another Mukherjee, Pranab. What’s more, whether Pranab Mukherjee, finance minister and Cardinal Richelieu of the UPA government, becomes president or not will in a sense be determined by another Bengali, Mamata Banerjee, chief minister in Kolkata.

The presidential election of 2012 is the craziest, most unpredictable election of its kind and the first to truly reflect the fragmented and regionalist politics of India. India’s coalition era began in the mid-1990s. Even so, every presidential election since then has more or less been decided by the prevailing national party. In 1997, KR Narayanan was elevated from the vice-presidency and became the first Dalit resident of Rashtrapati Bhavan. Though he was nominated by the Congress-backed United Front government, Narayanan’s election conformed to a succession plan put in place by the PV Narasimha Rao Cabinet in 1992.

In 2002, APJ Abdul Kalam was the BJP’s second choice — after PC Alexander — and while being an accidental choice, was still an acceptable one for the then ruling party. Of course, in the interests of symbolism and tactics, it allowed Mulayam Singh Yadav (Samajwadi Party) and even Mamata Banerjee (Trinamool Congress) to take the credit for suggesting Kalam’s name. In 2007, the Congress was in the midst of a surprise comeback to South Block and bludgeoned its way past the others. It chose Pratibha Patil, a middle-ranking party leader and Nehru-Gandhi loyalist, and had the needed strength to push her through.

Holding the cards Mamata may support Pranab’s candidature. Sonia will not
Holding the cards: Mamata may support Pranab’s candidature. Sonia will not, Photo: Reuters

It’s so different this time. The Congress is on the defensive, worried about the 2014 General Election. The BJP is far from optimum strength. Neither party can get a candidate to win or even convince a critical mass of allies. So divided is the polity — and the Electoral College, which comprises every state and national legislator, each with a weighted vote given the individual state’s population — that two or three provincial satraps hold the veto.

In particular, Mamata, as the Congress’ biggest ally in the UPA, and Mulayam, whose SP has more Electoral College votes than any non-UPA, non-NDA party, are the key to this presidential election. Both have won massive mandates in states that have large populations. This gives them extraordinary influence.

Where does Pranab come into all this? At one level, he’s the obvious and straightforward candidate. If the Congress wants a party person as president, it needs to put its best foot forward, identify a nominee who is well-regarded and seen as equal to the job, and will attract respect and maybe even votes from sections of the Opposition. There is a sense that if the Congress wants to keep the presidency within the party fold, it will have to sacrifice Pranab.

Yet, this is something the party is loath to do. Pranab has been passed on for the prime minister’s job (2004) and the president’s job (2007), being mollified with a mere Padma Vibhushan (2008). He is the man who never gets the top job, and may lose out this time as well because Sonia Gandhi is not seen as trusting him sufficiently and, paradoxically, because he is such a keystone of the UPA government, its oneman brains trust and political manager.

Whether Pranab Mukherjee becomes president or not, will in a sense, be determined by Mamata Banerjee

Even so, it has been apparent that Pranab wants the job. He is tired of shepherding the finance ministry, having told confidants even two or three years ago that the UPA’s policy paralysis, lack of political support for liberalisation and the excessive zeal of Jairam Ramesh’s environment ministry were going to cause a problem.

Now the problem is upon the government, like a self-fulfilling prophecy — and Pranab is dealing with a mess not of his making and not of his instinct. On his recent visit to Washington, DC, he was almost scolded by interlocutors for the UPA’s lack of traction on reforms.

That aside, Pranab certainly does not see himself contesting another Lok Sabha election — his victories in Jangipur (Murshidabad) in 2004 and 2009 were his first in any direct election to Parliament and tacitly assisted by the Left. Neither is he keen on serving under Rahul Gandhi, a man almost four decades his junior. He realises his innings is coming to a close; Rashtrapati Bhavan would be a fitting pavilion.

It would be poignant if Pranab ended his career thus. He hit the national stage during the Emergency. At just about 40, he became minister of state for revenue — working notionally under the then finance minister C Subramaniam but actually taking orders from Sanjay Gandhi.

From there to the Rahul Gandhi period in the Congress, Pranab has survived from the ascent of one Young Prince to another. Poignantly too, a career that began serving Ajoy Mukherjee of the Bangla Congress — a breakaway leader who set up a regional party and became the first non-Congress chief minister of Bengal — is now dependent on a decision to be taken by Mamata Banerjee, the second Congress dissident to become chief minister at Writers’ Building after setting up a regional party.

A third person had tried that route too. In the 1980s, Pranab himself walked out on Rajiv Gandhi and set up the Rashtriya Samajwadi Congress. The party got nowhere and the prodigal returned, making peace with the son of the woman who had been his first great mentor in national politics. Under Indira Gandhi, Pranab was a powerful commerce and then finance minister, close to rising business groups in the 1980s.

Rajiv, however, started off on a bad note with him, seeing Pranab as a bit too ambitious when he became prime minister in 1984. The two made up in 1989 and Pranab has remained pivotal to the party in its two terms in office in this century, but somehow the trust of the previous century has never come back. Sonia Gandhi respects him, but when it comes to prime minister, she chose Manmohan Singh; when it came to the president in 2007, her first choice was Shivraj Patil.

SO WHY should it be different this time? To be fair, it may not be. Yet, in this strange election season, one packed with red herrings and minus a frontrunner, every candidate seems to be cancelling himself out.

APJ Abdul Kalam had a small chance of becoming the first Indian to serve two staggered terms as president. This could only have happened if the NDA, the SP and Trinamool all voted for him. Earlier this week, Sushma Swaraj, BJP leader in the Lok Sabha, jumped the gun and announced Kalam was her party’s preferred choice. This effectively killed the Kalam idea. She should have waited for somebody like Mulayam to suggest the name and then announced support.

Now the SP and the Left Front have announced their preference for Hamid Ansari, who is also emerging as the Congress’ compromise choice. Ansari was a Left nominee for the vice-presidency in 2007. Mamata is wary of him. Her Rajya Sabha MPs have sent negative reports about him. There is also the speculation that should the Congress adopt Ansari, it would be sending a signal of reconciliation with the communist parties, and this could only be at Mamata’s expense.

So far it has been clear as to what Mamata doesn’t want. It is not entirely obvious as to what she does want in terms of the Rashtrapati Bhavan race. She led the BJP up the garden path by getting them to recommend name after name and dismissing each — PA Sangma (“Sharad Pawarer lok: Sharad Pawar’s man”), Parkash Singh Badal and even Kalam. “She wasn’t keen on Kalam because she didn’t want to antagonise Sonia,” says a Trinamool MP.

However, she cannot accept Ansari either and “doesn’t want a non-political figure” for what she believes is essentially a politically-important job. If true, that rules out Gopal Gandhi, who as governor of West Bengal, won Mamata’s respect for questioning the Singur and Nandigram violence.

Who does that leave Mamata with? Pranab as president would serve two purposes. She could promote his candidature in West Bengal as a totem of Bengali pride and a man she ensured would make it to the top post in the Republic. On the other hand, the seniormost Congress leader in the state would have been removed from conventional, day-to-day politics, and this could only help Trinamool.

SO CONSIDER the irony. The Congress is the ruling party and Pranab is the Congressperson most qualified to becoming India’s president. He dwarfs other party candidates — among others AK Antony and SM Krishna have been speculated upon. Nevertheless, his party doesn’t want to give him the top job.

He will only get it if his party leader has no choice and is coerced by those who are sympathisers of neither Pranab nor the Congress. He will only get it if a regional rival who doesn’t really like him decides the presidency is a convenient manner in which to get rid of him. He will only get it if Opposition parties then join the clamour and facilitate Pranab’s election — Sushma’s snubbing of the idea notwithstanding — with the presumption that this will cripple the UPA government.

Would you want to be in these shoes? Thinking for himself, Pranab wouldn’t mind.

Ashok Malik is Contributing Editor, Tehelka. 
ashok@tehelka.com

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