The Foot That Doesn’t Fit Any Shoe

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

Tehelka - - COVER STORY -

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 ›mer­gency, 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.

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.

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 self­ful­fill­ing 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

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

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 ›mer­gency. 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.

A tired man Pranab will not mind a peace­ful last in­nings

PHOTO: REUTERS

Hold­ing the cards Ma­mata may sup­port Pranab’s can­di­da­ture. So­nia will not

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