They squabbled for days on end over the suitability of Home Minister Shivraj Patil as the country’s next President. But it took the UPA and the Left barely six hours to hammer out a consensus on Rajasthan Governor Pratibha Patil’s candidature for the Rashtrapati Bhawan.
An old Gandhi-family loyalist, Pratibha’s name was kept under wraps by UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi till it became clear that the Left parties would not agree to the Home Minister’s candidature. That Sonia had a contingency plan was not known to even her closest advisors, who now recall a meeting she had with the Rajashtan Governor at 10, Janpath about a fortnight ago.
What tilted the scales in Pratibha’s favour were her clean image and the prospects of a woman occupying the highest constitutional office. On being conveyed the Left’s steadfast rejection of Shivraj Patil and only a part agreement on Karan Singh, whom the CPI backed but not others in the Left Front, the Congress president had Pratibha’s named “mooted” by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at his meeting with the Left leaders, including CPI-M General Secretary Prakash Karat, at 7, Race Course Road shortly after noon on Thursday.
The logjam broke when the CPI’s A B Bardhan expressed “forceful” support for Pratibha. Others at the meeting agreed without ado on sending a woman to the Rashtrapati Bhawan for the first time since the Independence. The Left-supported Lakshmi Sehgal’s 2002 candidature was more of a “token” contest with even the Congress backing APJ Abdul Kalam.
Later, when Bardhan hinted that the candidate could be a woman from Maharashtra, certain TV channels made an intelligent guess and flashed Nirmala Deshpande’s name. But the ageing Gandhian was never in contention.
In fact, within minutes of the Left’s acceptance of Pratibha’s nomination, a senior Sonia emissary called on DMK chief M Karunanidhi at the Tamil Nadu House. Other UPA allies —- such as the RJD’s Lalu Prasad Yadav and the NCP’s Sharad Pawar— also came on board promptly to break the impasse that many in the Congress felt did no good to either the presidency or the UPA regime.
Pawar, in fact, was effusive in his praise of Pratibha, who has been the Congress’s Pradesh Unit Chief, Legislature Party leader and a Minister in Maharashtra. “She’s dignified, very good,” a senior leader quoted the NCP chief as having remarked.
From its standpoint, the Congress, while taking credit for projecting a woman, has not also lost on the loyalty test. Rajiv Gandhi had made Pratibha the Deputy Chairperson of Rajya Sabha as a reward for standing by his mother during the Janata Party rule of the 1970s.
What lends extra political value to the UPA’s challenge are her close family relations with her likely opponent, Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, whose native village in Rajasthan’s Sikar district is just forty km away from Pratibha’s husband Devisingh Shekhawat’s.
The Marathi speaking Pratibha’s family — and that of her spouse — moved to Maharashtra a long time ago. Her husband once taught at a college in Amravati.