Presidential elections are a good seven months away. Even the balance of forces in its electoral college comprising Parliament and state legislatures remains uncertain with polls due in the first half of 2007 to assemblies in Uttar Pradesh, Uttaranchal, Punjab and Manipur.
Against this backdrop, what really made the National Democratic Alliance's top leadership rush to APJ Abdul Kalam on November 25 with the offer of support for a second term — a Presidential wink?
The buzz in political circles in New Delhi is that "intermediaries" earlier approached the Congress with the suggestion of a second term for Kalam. They choreographed the Opposition alliance's call on the President on receiving no word from the ruling party that might prefer a Dalit in the Rashtrapati Bhavan.
The NDA leaders met the President in the garb of discussing internal security. But their real objective, known to a select few in the BJP and the Janata Dal (U), was to discuss the polls due next July.
In fact, NDA convener George Fernandes briefed his JD(U) colleagues and LK Advani spoke to vice-president Bhairon Singh Shekhawat before heading for Rashtrapati Bhavan.
A candidate himself for the top office, Shekhawat had good reasons to be upset. But he betrayed no emotions while telling Advani to do whatever he "thought best in the interest of the country and the party". The NDA's move flies in the face of AB Vajpayee's reliance on the "no second term" convention while turning down the Congress' proposal for a repeat term for President KR Narayanan. "The very convention that made Kalam the President is now sought to be broken by people claiming to know his mind," a Congress leader said.
This view was substantiated by a JD(U) heavyweight who found the pro-Kalam campaign "premature, distasteful and confrontationist." He wondered whether the BJP has set out to upstage the UPA or seriously back the President.
The question is valid as the saffron party has since petitioned Kalam for the dismissal of Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mulayam Singh Yadav.
The Samajwadi Party chief was among the "missile" man's frontline campaigners, besides the BJP and Telugu Desam's Chandrababu Naidu, in the 2002 elections that even saw the Congress backing Kalam against the Left's Lakshmi Sahagal.
Mulayam is down but not out in UP. Even if he loses the assembly elections, BSP's Mayawati would emerge as a key player prone to backing the Congress' talent hunt for a Dalit.
Kalam's prospects would also be damaged by whatever decision he takes on the mercy petition of Parliament House attack case convict Afzal Guru. "How will we support Kalam's candidature if he commutes the sentence? And if he rejects Afzal's plea, he'd alienate Muslim legislators in Parliament and Assemblies," noted a BJP insider on condition of anonymity. "In that eventuality, Shekhawat, with connections across party lines, will be our best bet…."
For their part, senior Rashtrapati Bhawan functionaries confirmed the NDA's offer to Kalam. But their claim that the President kept his counsel was contested by sources privy to what transpired at the meeting. "The President's silence was eloquent, so was his body language," they said.
Be that as it may, the NDA's one-upmanship on the issue on which the Prime Minister of the day must have the final word — given the President's constitutional role of acting on the aid and advice of the Cabinet— could set the stage for an ugly confrontation. A fact of history is that Pandit Nehru tried to dissuade even Rajendra Prasad, the Republic's first and only President who served two terms, from re-contesting in 1957.