Race for the highest office begins

Rasheeda Bhagat | Updated on: Apr 30, 2012

BL01RASH4 | Photo Credit: R_Ragu

The presidential race is going to be interesting. The Congress needs more than its allies within the UPA to push through its candidate, and the Opposition looks keen for a contest.

With the presidential elections around the corner, a listless UPA Government is stirring into some form of life.

The Opposition, of course, has been firing some shots in the air on the issue for a little while now, and the name of Dr A. P. J. Abdul Kalam as their first choice has been doing the rounds for a few weeks.

NCP chief, Mr Sharad Pawar, who some people claim is in the race himself, gave some credence to this by first saying he would prefer a non-politician to take charge at the Rashtrapati Bhavan this July. Of course, later, after meeting Congress president, Sonia Gandhi, on this issue, he has changed his tune.

While Ms Gandhi kicked off the consultation process with UPA allies on this issue by talking to Mr Pawar, her bigger challenge comes in tackling the firebrand Trinamool Congress chief, Mamata Banerjee. This meeting is expected to take place in a few days, but meanwhile Defence Minister, Mr A. K. Antony, was dispatched to Chennai on Sunday to bring on board the UPA's second biggest ally, the DMK.

Mr Antony called on the DMK chief, Mr M. Karunanidhi, whose party has clearly been on the backfoot vis-à-vis the mega corruption charges slapped on former Telecom Minister, Mr A. Raja, in the 2G spectrum scam saga. His own daughter and Rajya Sabha MP, Ms Kanimozhi, was also swept into the eye of the 2G storm.

Since her imprisonment and release after a protracted legal battle, the DMK as an ally has been in sulk mode. Mr Karunanidhi's biggest grouse is that the Congress leadership did not lift a finger to help his party, particularly his daughter.

But, then, with rival AIADMK sweeping the Tamil Nadu elections last April and the DMK out of power, there was little the latter could hope to achieve by walking out of the UPA-II. The Dravidian leaders have moved into a more mature mode when it comes to throwing each other behind bars when out of grace with the electorate. Despite this safety net, the DMK could hope to achieve little by being out of power both at the Centre and the State.

Dependable DMK

But Mr Karunanidhi, astute politician that he is, knew only too well that sooner than later the Congress would need to come knocking on his door. After the debacle in its high-pitched race for the Uttar Pradesh electorate's favour, a subdued Congress realises this southern ally's value. Pitted against the high-decibel and public tantrums of Bengal's Mamata didi , the usually dependable DMK comes through as even more valuable.

Though no official word is out from either the DMK or Congress stables, it is widely perceived that Mr Antony sought, and has got, the DMK's support for the Congress candidate — believed to be vice-president, Hamid Ansari.

The other name mentioned is that of Finance Minister, Pranab Mukherjee. But with Pranabda being such an invaluable support when it comes to cooling down the highly volatile Mamata didi, whenever she flies into a rage, which is very often, it is doubtful if the Congress can afford to shift him to the highly sanitised and, hopefully apolitical, confines of Rashtrapati Bhavan.

But, it should be noted that Mr Mukherjee who has been the Congress High Command's emissary to the DMK in the past, was not sent this time. That leaves a window open for him.

According to the grapevine in Delhi, Pranabda is most agreeable to emerging as the Congress' presidential candidate. After all, a five-year stint in Rashtrapati Bhavan would be much more tempting to any Congress leader than the terribly slim chance of returning to power in 2014.

That is, presuming UPA-II completes its term! While Mr Karunanidhi has pledged his support — the quid quo pro is not in public domain yet — it will be much more difficult to bring Bengal's didi on board.

Once again, it is not the time-tested Congress trouble shooter in Mr Mukherjee who will hold talks with her, but none less than Ms Gandhi herself. Mamata, the nation can be assured, will demand, and very openly too, her price for endorsing the Congress' choice for the president's post. What kind of a package she manages to get for her State for this favour remains to be seen.

SP and BSP needed too

But the Congress needs more than its allies within the UPA to push through its candidate. It needs the support of both the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj party to ensure it has a president of its choice at Raisina Hill.

While both these parties are lending the UPA outside support at the moment, the BSP's Mayawati might be easier to persuade than the SP's Mulayam, who is still basking in the glory of his party's phenomenal victory in the recent UP polls.

It is widely believed that Mr Mulayam himself is likely to throw his hat into the ring.

But, then, one has to be a fly on the wall at Mulayam's Lucknow residence to find out what kind of churnings are taking place in his mind.

Ambition has never been wanting in this UP satrap; if he thinks he can carve out a Third Front and lead it to some kind of victory in the 2014 elections, then why not take a shy at the prime minister's kursi itself, would be his reasoning.

Talking about prime ministers, the present incumbent whose name was being mentioned so vociferously in Delhi till recently, seems nowhere in the reckoning.

One reason might be that grand theories have come to naught of anointing Rahul baba to the post after the spectacular victory in UP that was not to be.

So Mr Manmohan Singh remains where he is, while the likes of Mr Ansari or Mr Mukherjee will be advocated as the Congress' choice.

But, as of now, it looks as though the BJP and other Opposition parties might not come on board this time, and we might actually see a contest. If this happens, even if Dr Kalam is the Opposition's choice, there are indications that he will not agree to a contest.

As was the case last time, when there was talk of his doing a second term, he might agree only if there is consensus. With the Congress disinclined to having him as President, the presidential race is certainly going to be interesting.

But one thing is certain. This nation deserves a worthier candidate for the post than the present incumbent. The office calls for a person of greater stature, vision, imagination and charisma.

(Responses to blfeedback@thehindu.co.in and rasheeda@thehindu.co.in )

Published on April 30, 2012
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