THE LAST RACE HORSE

Al­lies up­set So­nia’s game­plan by prop­ping up Po­lit­i­cal Pranab

India Today - - COVER STORY - By Priya Sah­gal

Oh my good­ness!” ex­claimed Pranab Mukher­jee when asked by re­porters whether he was the Congress can­di­date for the next pres­i­dent of In­dia. He was quick to add a note of cau­tion: “Do not in­dulge in spec­u­la­tion.” This was on April 30. With key UPA al­lies sup­port­ing Mukher­jee, his can­di­da­ture has sud­denly be­come much more than me­dia spec­u­la­tion. It is not the Congress but UPA al­lies who are prop­ping up Mukher­jee. Agri­cul­ture Min­is­ter Sharad Pawar was the first to throw his weight be­hind the fi­nance min­is­ter’s can­di­da­ture when he said that the next pres­i­dent should not be an “apo­lit­i­cal can­di­date”. He later added, “Whether it is Pranab Mukher­jee or ( Vice- Pres­i­dent) Hamid An­sari, there should be a con­sen­sus on the name.” It was clear that he pre­ferred po­lit­i­cal Mukher­jee to the apo­lit­i­cal An­sari. Soon, po­lit­i­cal be­came the code word for Mukher­jee as Sa­ma­jwadi Party ( SP) chief Mu­layam Singh Ya­dav, too, de­clared that the next pres­i­dent should be a “po­lit­i­cal” can­di­date.

With DMK, Rashtriya Lok Dal and even the Left stat­ing that they would sup­port ei­ther Mukher­jee or An­sari, the Congress is caught in a bind. The party needs not just the UPA con­stituents but also Mu­layam’s num­bers to get its can­di­date through. If it fails to get its can­di­date elected, then the Man­mo­han Singh Gov­ern­ment will have to re­sign. The only po­lit­i­cal can­di­date the al­lies agree upon is Mukher­jee.

So­nia Gandhi is aware of these com­pul­sions. She in­vited

her bete noire Pawar to 10 Jan­path on April 25 to ini­ti­ate con­sul­ta­tions. This was the first time in the ten­ure of UPA 2 that the Na­tion­al­ist Congress Party ( NCP) chief had been in­vited to her home. While no names were dis­cussed, Pawar pointed out that given the num­bers, UPA’S can­di­date would have to be one all the par­ties agreed upon.

Tri­namool Congress chief Ma­mata Ban­er­jee’s ap­a­thy to both An­sari and Mukher­jee is an open se­cret. But both Pawar and So­nia know that while Ma­mata has the lux­ury of say­ing no to An­sari, she can­not an­tag­o­nise the West Ben­gal voter by block­ing a fel­low Ben­gali’s el­e­va­tion to Rash­tra­p­ati Bha­van. Ma­mata has told the Congress to de­cide upon one can­di­date as she does not want to be seen re­ject­ing any­one. The

prob­lem is that So­nia does not trust Mukher­jee. Congress folk­lore has it that in 1984, soon af­ter Indira Gandhi’s as­sas­si­na­tion, he dared to sug­gest that the most se­nior min­is­ter should be in­stalled as Indira’s suc­ces­sor. In other words, the prime min­is­ter­ship should go to him. Ra­jiv’s co­terie played this up as an act of dis­si­dence and Mukher­jee was side­lined. Sub­se­quently, he won back Ra­jiv’s trust. But So­nia is still to trust the one man she de­pends upon to run this Gov­ern­ment. In 2007 when the Left pro­posed Mukher­jee’s name, she was quick to shoot it down say­ing he “was too valu­able to be spared”.

A lot has changed in the past five years. For one, UPA does not have the out­right ma­jor­ity to elect its own can­di­date as it did in 2007. Sec­ond, in the cur­rent un­sta­ble po­lit­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment with an ac­tivist ju­di­ciary tak­ing on the ex­ec­u­tive, the need of the hour is a po­lit­i­cal pres­i­dent. If So­nia still goes ahead with An­sari, she will ex­pose her own po­lit­i­cal in­se­cu­rity.

An­tic­i­pat­ing So­nia’s dis­com­fort, her co­terie swung into ac­tion. Congress spokesper­son Renuka Chowd­hury claimed that Mukher­jee is too “valu­able” to lose. Cab­i­net min­is­ter Sal­man Khur­shid played the same “valu­able” card, say­ing, “He ( Mukher­jee) is our Rahul Dravid— The Wall.” But the al­lies are not buy­ing this line any­more. There is a rea­son why they are prop­ping up Mukher­jee’s name: He would be no rub­ber stamp. Also, there are few in Gov­ern­ment to­day who can ri­val Mukher­jee’s grasp of the Con­sti­tu­tion.

Although he has not lob­bied for the post, to deny him this would be a snub he will not ig­nore. Those who know Mukher­jee well say that he would im­me­di­ately re­sign as fi­nance min­is­ter and So­nia would any­way lose the “valu­able” min­is­ter she claims she can­not do with­out.

There is a cer­tain glee among the al­lies at the Congress’s dis­com­fi­ture. Pawar has a self- con­fessed “love- hate” re­la­tion­ship with Congress. DMK chief M. Karunanidhi blames Congress for send­ing daugh­ter Kan­i­mozhi to Ti­har. An en­er­gised Mu­layam is an­gry about CBI’S plea to in­ves­ti­gate the dis­pro­por­tion­ate as­sets case against him. This is pay­back time.

So­nia could still come up with a wild card— an­other po­lit­i­cal name in­stead of Mukher­jee. An­tic­i­pat­ing that she might nom­i­nate the Gandhi fam­ily loy­al­ist A. K. Antony, both the Op­po­si­tion and UPA’S al­lies at­tacked the de­fence min­is­ter in the Ra­jya Sabha on May 7. The CPI’S M. P. Achuthan said in the Ra­jya Sabha, “It’s un­for­tu­nate that the clean im­age of Shri A. K. Antony is be­ing used to cover up many scams.” In Lok Sabha on the same day, BJP leader Yash­want Sinha praised Mukher­jee’s lead­er­ship skills. He also added, “Soon, you will be mov­ing to a big­ger house in the Cap­i­tal.”

There is also a view within the Congress that the mi­nori­ties have been ad­e­quately rep­re­sented in po­si­tions of power. Congress sources say So­nia could play the tribal card and nom­i­nate the mild- man­nered K. C. Deo or some such bland but po­lit­i­cally cor­rect can­di­date. But given the fact that the al­lies have al­ready expressed their pref­er­ence, and con­sid­er­ing the Congress’s cur­rent cred­i­bil­ity deficit, it will be a risky gam­ble even for So­nia.

YASBANT NEGI/ www. in­di­a­to­day­im­ages. com

PTI

MAMATACALLS ON MU­LAYAM ON MAY3

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