Will Union Home Minister Shivraj Patil be the next President? Or will the twists and turns of realpolitik prop up some other distinguished Indian for the coveted post? Patil, who is being projected by some within his own party as the choice of Sonia Gandhi, has the making of a good President provided that an agreement is reached over his name among the UPA allies. His candidacy can next be discussed with the Opposition parties with a view to evolving a consensus. If that is achieved, then a contest can be avoided.
However, the fact that his name has come up so early and even before any kind of discussion has taken place with the allies could jeopardise his chances. Normally, the tradition in the Congress has been that the names that figure in the speculation during the run-up to the presidential polls are circulated for gauging the mood of the electorate. But closer to the last date, the final choice is disclosed after parleys with allies and like-minded parties.
Therefore, many political pundits feel that the introduction of Patil’s name at this stage was very premature since Sonia Gandhi herself has yet to get all her allies on board on his candidacy. As this has not been done, Patil’s choice will depend to a great deal on what the Left parties have to say on his selection, as also some of his allies who may not be too well disposed towards him. But one can presume that if Sonia Gandhi insists on his name, none of the allies or the Left parties will oppose it and may go along with the final selection. Things will be clearer when she returns from Holland and meets the CPI(M) general secretary Prakash Karat, who is also expected to be back shortly.
The BJP is trying to play a clever game on the subject by stating that Vice- President Bhairon Singh Shekhawat will be an independent candidate if he decides to contest — and not a candidate of the BJP or the NDA. The objective seems to be to get Shekhawat to contest in the event of the Congress putting up a weak candidate and then ask for support from the electoral college comprising members of all legislatures by appealing to their conscience.
In a way, the BJP perhaps feels that a ‘conscience vote’ — as was obtained by Indira Gandhi for V.V. Giri in 1969 — may help Shekhawat, whose support base also extends beyond the NDA to members of his own community in other parties as was evident when he contested for the vice-presidential elections five years ago. To add to the confusion, some of his supporters feel that Shekhawat’s personal equations with political leaders, like Sharad Pawar, could also be exploited to his advantage. This may not happen since Pawar is no novice and out of the current lot of politicians, he is the senior-most in terms of chief ministerial candidates — something he was since 1978 when he was in his 30s.
As far as Shekhawat goes, he is deeply-rooted in the BJP ideology even if he is technically not a member of that party anymore. But even while being the Vice- President, he has been regularly intervening in crisis situations in the BJP. He has not been a silent spectator. The short point is that once his candidacy is announced, he will be seen as the BJP candidate — notwithstanding what Sushma Swaraj and Rajnath Singh may have to say.
In any case, it is Vajpayee who has been authorised by the NDA to finalise a name and he alone is empowered to speak on behalf of his grouping. And if Sonia Gandhi has not broached the topic of Shivraj Patil with her allies directly so far, Vajpayee, too, has not initiated Shekhawat’s name formally. The situation as it exists on the ground in terms of party strengths is that the UPA nominee will have no difficulty in getting elected even if Shekhawat — or anyone else — jumps into the fray. Ideally speaking, the ruling party should have the prerogative of deciding the presidential candidate and all others should support him. But things do not happen in such a simple way in politics.
So Shekhawat will have to wait for some time to see how the drama unfolds to know whether he, like four other VPs before him — M. Hidayatullah, B.D. Jatti, Gopal Swarup Pathak and Krishan Kant — fails to get the top position, unlike all others who held the post and rose to become Presidents.
But a twist to the presidential elections can take place if something unexpected happens. Since politics is a game of possibilities, an interesting situation can arise if, for instance, somebody like Mulayam Singh Yadav was to propose the name of a veteran Congress leader like N.D. Tewari for the job and Vajpayee for tactical reasons, seconds the proposal. Such a situation could catch the Congress on the wrong foot and its own calculations for the post could go awry. The party may find it difficult to oppose someone like Tewari (unless he opts out by declaring so). It will be a classic case of the ruling party losing the initiative of choosing someone but ending up accepting what the Opposition has to offer. However, in such a scenario, the Left and Mayawati could also have an important role.
As things stand today, the political scenario is very hazy with names other than Patil and Shekhawat also doing the rounds, with veteran Congress leader Mohsina Kidwai being touted for vice-presidentship (polls to be held in August). But in the run-up, some elementary mistakes are being made by the Congress managers. For instance, a message that has gone out is that Pranab Mukherjee, whose name had been obliquely suggested by the Left for the position, has been depicted as the man who cannot be spared by the Congress as he is central to running the UPA government. He is on 40-odd committees of Parliament or heads so many groups of ministers that without him, the government may collapse.
While Pranab-da is certainly one of the most accomplished of our politicians, projecting him in this manner makes him indispensable for the running of the government. The flip side of this argument is that such a suggestion of indispensability casts doubts over the abilities of the Prime Minister and that of the Congress as a whole. Between us.