My impeccable sources (read: every newspaper in town) tell me that the Congress leadership has decided to not muck about the bush any longer and will, later this week, announce the UPA's candidate for the presidential polls scheduled for next month. The same sources tell me that finance minister Pranab Mukherjee is the likeliest choice. With Congress allies such as the Samajwadi Party and the DMK (yes, sending their MPs to jail doesn't mean you can't be friends) looking like agreeing on Pranab-babu, it seems like we'll get the Congress to finally put their money where their hand is.
I certainly think Pranab-babu deserves the political equivalent of the Lifetime Achievement Oscar. When the best prime minister India never had finds his head covered with sores after hitting it far too many times against the glass ceiling that defines prime ministerial aspirations in the Congress, a happy stint at the Hilton Raisina should be nice.
Mukherjee may still seem indispensable as the resident witchdoctor-politician-minister during this final lap of the UPA 2. Catch the likes of Sultan Ahmed or Salman Khurshid negotiating (sic) with Mamata Banerjee while firefighting issues ranging from the present state of the economy to the ghosts of Chidambaram past. But as the man himself said in October 2010 when asked whether he would join a Rahul Gandhi government at the Centre, "My goodness! What would be my age? I am already 75. There is a limit beyond which you cannot go... I have overstayed my wicket." So yes, it's understandable why Pranab-babu should spend his dessert days in Rashtrapati Bhavan till 2017.
But then, there are all those Facebook hit-and-run activists who have been muttering with their fingers hovering over the 'What's on your mind?' status button and challenging the very notion of the Indian presidency being a retirement plan for the deserving. This disruptive and naive bunch of guerrilla opinionators have an issue with Pranab-babu being too much of a 'Congress politician'. They're probably the same lot who told the CPI(M) leadership to expel the then Lok Sabha speaker Somnath Mukherjee from the party for not voting against the UPA in the July 2008 confidence vote.
But Pranab-babu being unable or able to shake off his 'Congress' tag once he's president is why we have presidential elections, with the likes of the BJP (and Trinamool Congress) free to oppose the Congress' nomination of Mukherjee. The scriptures do say that the president - once he's president - has to be outside the realm of party politics. The fact that seven of the 12 presidents India has had were active members of a party - six from the Congress, one from the Janata Party - before getting zapped into apolitical bliss isn't much of a defence. (There were quite a few malfunctions with the party loyalty-removing neuraliser device that our Men in White applied on Zail Singh.)
And the niggling purists point out that one of the key reasons for the Constituent Assembly deciding to avoid direct presidential elections was to avoid the situation in which candidates would have to campaign across the country. This would have necessitated candidates to be put up by some party or the other, "which may cause political excitement and generate party feelings". So deliberations by our wise Constitution-makers led to the decision that "the ideal of getting a non-party man outside the turmoil of party passions and reasonably respected by all factions to assume the role of the head of the State will be defeated" if people directly voted for the president.
Going by actual practice, one of the original purposes of not having direct presidential polls - keeping a non-party candidate "outside the turmoil of party passions" - seems to have been discarded, making the presidential elections a glorified municipal elections in disguise. And in their utter cynicism, these fly-by-night opinionators - probably with Anna Hazare, the RSS and Big Business links, for all I know - have suggested that since the presidential polls have turned out to be as political as any other, the Congress should cut through the chase and name Rahul Gandhi as its candidate.
Which, come to think of it, isn't a bad idea considering Rahul's less political than Pranab-babu, will make a smashingly good ambassador for India as its Head of State in foreign capitals, and will finally answer the question that's never ever asked: if everyone wants a young prime minister these days, why can't we have a young president?