Lack of details regarding the probable Presidential nominee of the Bharatiya Janata Party has prevented the Opposition from giving a worthwhile response to the team constituted by Amit Shah to explore the possibility of arriving at a consensus. Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh and Union Information and Broadcasting Minister M. Venkaiah Naidu have been going through the motions of consultations with various parties and their own senior leaders. In other words, the entire exercise of having high-yielding discussions on who would be the next occupant of the Rashtrapati Bhawan has so far turned out to be inconclusive.
The difficulty of the two ministers in taking forward the process for the selection of an acceptable Presidential candidate was evident when after meeting several Opposition leaders, they arrived on Friday evening at the Prithviraj Road residence of L.K. Advani and asked for suggestions. The BJP patriarch declined to be drawn into any discussion and told them in plain words that he had no name to recommend and therefore there could not be any further conversation on the subject. The meeting ended abruptly and the duo was out in less than ten minutes, before they drove down to the Raisina Road bungalow of Dr Murli Manohar Joshi. Nothing concrete emerged from that engagement either. After exchanging pleasantries, Naidu and Rajnath Singh left for their respective abodes.
Union Finance and Defence Minister Arun Jaitley, the third member of the committee formed by Amit Shah to hold parleys with the Opposition parties, was abroad and returned to the capital only on Saturday morning. He may join the other two once the process of finding the suitable contender is resumed.
Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad, who was present at their meeting with Sonia Gandhi, divulged details of what happened. Azad observed that Naidu and Rajnath Singh did not have any names and wanted to know the Congress position. “It is for the government to first come out with their list and it is only after that the Opposition can react. With no names being mentioned by the government, the matter could not make any headway.” During their appointment with CPM’s top functionaries, the ministers were point-blank informed that any hard core member of the RSS would not be acceptable. However, again in the absence of any concrete nominees, the discussions remained inconclusive.
Congress sources said that the two ministers were having consultations to create an impression that the government was making an attempt to get the Opposition on board.
The two ministers had also independently spoken to former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati, besides contacting Nitish Kumar, Sharad Pawar and Chandrababu Naidu. While Naidu said that he would support the government’s candidate, Pawar and Nitish Kumar did not commit themselves, preferring to wait for a few days more. The AIADMK factions have also communicated that they would adhere by the official choice of the BJP, which is likely to be made known by 23 June, which coincides with the 64th death anniversary of the Jana Sangh founder, Dr Shyama Prasad Mukherjee. The Shiv Sena, which at one stage rooted for the RSS Sarsangchalak Mohan Bhagwat, is now supporting noted scientist Dr M.S. Swainathan, the father of India’s Green Revolution, for the top job.
There was immense speculation as well over the luncheon meeting of Mohan Bhagwat with President Pranab Mukherjee at the Rashtrapati Bhawan on Friday. However, Sangh sources said that Bhagwat had gone to meet Mukherjee since he was unable to accept an earlier invitation by the President some months ago for a dinner due to a prior commitment. The Presidential polls were not on the agenda and the subject was not discussed at all.
Sangh sources stated that late last year, Bhagwat had met Mukherjee and had asked him upfront whether he was looking for another term. Caught unawares, the astute politician that he has been, Mukherjee replied in the negative. The RSS chief informed him that it was a wise decision as he was honouring the tradition being followed after the two tenures of Dr Rajendra Prasad of electing a new President every five years.
These sources said that the RSS has requested the BJP that the party must inform the Sangh before making any formal announcement regarding the next President, though it would prefer if detailed consultations were held prior to that. Bhagwat and his team are in favour of the next President being from the BJP with a Sangh background and a comprehensive understanding of the Constitution and the state of the nation.
Senior BJP leader and Bollywood icon, Shatrughan Sinha has been openly lobbying for Advani as the next President, but that is unlikely to happen. Similarly, Sushma Swaraj’s name has suddenly found support in several quarters and sources said that the Congress too would find her to be an acceptable choice. However, Swaraj would have to clear two hurdles, clearances from both Modi and the RSS before making the grade. Murli Manohar Joshi is clearly the Sangh favourite and his candidacy would depend on how much say the RSS has in the matter. Many other names have been doing the rounds as well and it is being said that regional and social considerations could be factors in determining the nominee. Nevertheless, it would be difficult for any contender to be shortlisted unless he or she is found to be compatible with the Sangh’s ideology. In this context, the role of the RSS assumes significance since without its active cooperation, the BJP and the NDA may end up squandering what seems to be a clear advantage at this stage.
Sources in the BJP said, that before leaving for the United States for his summit meeting with President Donald Trump, PM Modi may communicate the final choice to the Parliamentary Board on this coming Friday to seek its ratification. It is clear that till then, there is ambiguity in the ruling party ranks over the next President and with the RSS insisting that the nominee should have a Sangh background, a token contest may be inevitable.