It is clear that there is no possibility of the new President being elected through a broad consensus. The Sangh Parivar in general and the Bharatiya Janata Party in particular would ensure that the next occupant of the Rashtrapati Bhawan is their nominee, with a clear saffron DNA. It is unlikely that the Opposition would endorse for the position of the Head of the State the name of an RSS/BJP man and, therefore, efforts to reach a consensus on the candidate would prove futile.
On Friday, at a high powered lunch of 17 Opposition parties hosted by Congress president Sonia Gandhi, the focus seemed to be more on consolidating the unity of non BJP organisations, rather than having a detailed dialogue on the Presidential elections. Realising that it would be difficult to come out with a name acceptable to all the parties present at the luncheon, the Opposition has pushed the ball to the court of the ruling dispensation by asking it to come out with possible candidates around whom a general consensus could be built.
However, it became evident that the BJP nominee would not be acceptable, when a few participants like CPM’s Sitaram Yechury spoke about ideological issues and credentials of the selected person on whose name there could be a general agreement. It is apparent that the BJP would have one of its own as the Presidential probable, a matter which would ideologically not sit well with the Left as well as other “secular” parties.
It is common knowledge that the Opposition has already sounded Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson and former West Bengal Governor, Gopal Krishna Gandhi, as well as Babu Jagjivan Ram’s daughter and former Lok Sabha Speaker, Meira Kumar to be prepared for a showdown for the coveted position. Since the numbers are not on the sides of the Opposition, it would be safe to assume that it would merely be a token fight if either of the two persons or someone else is shortlisted for the sparring encounter.
Significantly, the Opposition is not alone in keeping its final strategy in abeyance. Within the BJP and the larger Sangh Parivar as well, there is no unanimity on any single individual. Multiple names are doing the rounds and the Sangh appears to be equally unsure of the ultimate choice. Several meetings of Sangh functionaries have already been held on the subject and parleys with the BJP are in an inconclusive stage. It can be said that consensus is so far eluding the Sangh itself, but after another few rounds of discussions, a panel of probables may emerge. Therefore, it is not surprising that several names of persons, with varied backgrounds and caste-cum-community and regional breakup, who could be politically useful to the BJP in future elections, have been doing the rounds. Some of them are perceived to be close to the Prime Minister and thus the inference that can be drawn is that they would be in the final shortlist.
There is little doubt that Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has led his party to several impressive victories in elections since the BJP’s historic win in the 2014 Parliamentary elections, would have an overriding say in the matter.
However, a section of the Sangh is of the view that the announcement of the likely Presidential candidate should be made only after a clearance from Nagpur. To support their contention, it is being pointed out that the Sangh had overruled senior leaders of the BJP, while declaring Modi as the party’s Prime Ministerial face in 2014. Similarly, the prerogative to do the same should also lie with the RSS and its Sarsangchalak, Mohan Bhagwat.
On 25 July, Pranab Mukherjee’s tenure ends and he has made it amply clear that he would consider the option of a second term only if his name is proposed by the government. In the current political scenario, this would not happen, unless differences in the Sangh Parivar over the nominee’s choice compel the ruling dispensation to play it safe by sticking to status quo.
There is no doubt that Pranab Mukherjee is perhaps the most accomplished leader in terms of his vast experience and overall acceptance across party lines. He had nominated himself for the position in 2012, compelling Sonia Gandhi to support his candidacy, despite the fact that the current Vice President, Hamid Ansari was her first choice. Senior Congress leaders had also advised the Congress president that opposing Mukherjee’s name and pitting someone else against him in an avoidable contest would create internal problems within the party.
It is obvious that Sonia Gandhi was unprepared to take the risk, which her mother-in-law Indira Gandhi had taken in 1969, following the untimely death of President Zakir Hussain. The top leadership of the party was in favour of nominating Neelam Sanjiva Reddy, the then Lok Sabha Speaker, for the coveted position, but Indira Gandhi had a different view. Giving the call for a conscience vote, she backed Vice President V.V. Giri after breaking away from the party controlled by S. Nijilingappa, K. Kamraj, S.K. Patil, Morarji Desai and others. In a closely fought contest, whose outcome would have had a definite bearing on Indira Gandhi’s continuation as Prime Minister, Giri defeated Reddy in the historic election.
The anxious moments prior to the declaration of the result are aptly captured in the memoirs of D.P. Mishra, described as Chanakya in political circles, who stood by the Prime Minister in her battle against the discredited Syndicate. D.P. Mishra was the father of Brajesh Mishra, who served as the Principal Secretary and National Security Adviser to former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. D.P. Mishra has recalled in the memoirs that once it became clear that Giri was eventually going to win, he picked up his grandson’s toy and after winding the key, put it on the table so that the tin drummer could play its beat on his miniature drum. Indira Gandhi’s ecstasy knew no bounds and she started dancing to the beat of the toy drummer, much to the delight of all those present.
There have been symbolic feuds in the past for the post of the Head of the State. Commencing with the joint Opposition in 1967 pitting Subba Rao, former Chief Justice of India, against Dr Zakir Hussain, there have been innumerable instances featuring contestants who had zilch chance of victory, but were fielded just for the sake of ensuring that the ruling party would not take things for granted. During Vajpayee’s tenure, the Congress and the BJP had zeroed in on the then Vice President Krishan Kant to succeed K.R. Narayanan, post-discussions between K. Natwar Singh and Brajesh Mishra . As things turned out, Krishan Kant was left high and dry and Pramod Mahajan and others convinced the party and Prime Minister Vajpayee to go for Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. Incidentally, Abdul Kalam was hailed as the people’s President and one of the finest incumbents to occupy the august office. However, the Left parties did not exhibit the grace to allow a unanimous election and thus fielded veteran INA leader Lakshmi Sahgal against him to offer a clash.
In 2007, the BJP and its allies, knowing full well that Pratibha Patil, who was the Presidential nominee of the UPA, would emerge as a clear winner, decided to offer a perfunctory challenge by backing Bhairon Singh Shekhwat for the post. In the same vein, Pranab Mukherjea faced former Lok Sabha Speaker P.A. Sangma in a match, which was over before it began since the Meghalaya leader had insufficient support.
Therefore, after the ruling dispensation and its allies firm up the name of the next President, the long wait for the important announcement on both sides may end sooner than expected.