Rumours surrounding the health of Parkash Singh Badal and Sharad Pawar, two leading political leaders of our times, became a worrying factor as the nation celebrated the Republic Day, which saw the unprecedented participation by French troops.
Badal is the senior most Chief Minister in the country and for the first time occupied the august position in Punjab in 1970. Pawar too assumed the office of Maharashtra Chief Minister for the first time in 1978, when he outmanoeuvred Indira Gandhi (then in opposition) and toppled the Congress (S)-Congress (I) ministry headed by Vasantdada Patil. Needless to say, Pawar’s mentor Yashwant Rao Chavan helped him to give the final shape to his blueprint of unseating the government at that time.
Both the leaders have been Chief Ministers several times after that and in their respective states at present have an unmatched stature. Pawar may be in the opposition, but commands both reverence and admiration amongst the people of the state. His unfulfilled ambition of becoming Prime Minister, one step higher than his boss Y.B. Chavan, has kept him going, and his political guile and astuteness have managed to keep his opponents on their toes for so many years.
Badal is undoubtedly the tallest leader in Punjab, primarily because he outfoxed his rivals—Gurcharan Singh Tohra, Jagdev Singh Talwandi and Surjit Singh Barnala on his way to the top. He is admired and respected by the Sikh clergy and enjoys the enviable position of not only being the head of the Punjab government, but also a highly regarded Sikh hero. The primary reason for the Akalis retaining power in 2012 was that it had Badal as its spearhead in addition to the aggressive campaign launched by his son Sukhbir Singh Badal. The Congress firepower was just not enough to challenge the Badals, and inner politics and undue interference by the party’s high command left its impression on the final results.
There are not too many Chief Ministers who have had long tenures in this country. Jyoti Basu in West Bengal, V.P. Naik in Maharashtra, Mohan Lal Sukhadia in Rajasthan, Sheila Dikshit in Delhi, Narendra Modi in Gujarat, M.K. Karunanidhi and J. Jayalalithaa inTamil Nadu, Narayan Dutt Tewari in UP and Uttarakhand, A.K. Antony in Kerala, Chandrababu Naidu in Andhra Pradesh and Virbhadra Singh in Himachal Pradesh are amongst the distinguished politicians who have occupied the highest positions in their respective states.
In fact, if one has to go by seniority amongst active politicians, Virbhadra Singh is easily the senior most, having been elected to the Lower House way back in 1962, followed by Dr Karan Singh, who joined Indira Gandhi’s Cabinet way back in 1967 after his maiden win in the Lok Sabha. They are the only two active leaders who have worked with every Prime Minister since Independence. Atal Behari Vajpayee is senior to them, but due to his failing health has been out of the political arena for the last several years now. In the Opposition ranks, Balraj Madhok, the co-founder of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh also made his Parliamentary debut in 1961 in a byelection from New Delhi, but he too, like Vajpayee, is not in a good physical condition.
Pranab Mukherjee and L.K. Advani are commonly considered to be the elder statesmen amongst the current lot of politicians. Statesmen they are, but are certainly not the senior most leaders. PranabDa made it to the Rajya Sabha in July 1969, as a nominee of the Bangla Congress led by former West Bengal Chief Minister Ajoy Kumar Mukhrejee, while Advani, older in age to Mukherjee, joined the Upper House six months later. There is little doubt in anyone’s mind that the two stalwarts have contributed immensely to the nation and to their respective parties, and have still many years to go before they hang up their boots.
Earlier in the week, when Vice President Hamid Ansari released the second volume of Pranab Mukherjee’s autobiography at the Rashtrapati Bhawan, it was heartening to see both Advani and Karan Singh present on the occasion to express their approval. Both Mukherjee and Advani were considered prime ministerial material by their respective parties at one time, but destiny played a cruel joke on them by denying them the opportunity to occupy the distinguished office. Karan Singh was perceived as the most suitable choice for President of India, but with the passing of years got overlooked by his own party, which, at one stage, backed Pratibha Patil, when he could have readily been given the honour. It is a well known fact that he is extraordinarily learned and is India’s cultural czar. There are few people who can claim to have the profundity of knowledge of the Hindu scriptures and the Upanishads as he possesses.
2017 would be another significant and momentous year in the history of the country as the elected representatives of the people would elect a new Rashtrapati. Pranab Mukherjee could be considered for a second term, which no incumbent after Dr Rajendra Prasad has been accorded. Advani or Murli Manohar Joshi could be BJP nominees. Similarly, if the choice has to narrow down to acceptable names from the political arena, the shortlist could be headed by Karan Singh and Sharad Pawar. All of them are the Marg Darshaks of the nation. Between us.