THE LAST RACE HORSE
Allies upset Sonia’s gameplan by propping up Political Pranab
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.
MAMATACALLS ON MULAYAM ON MAY3