The selection of Rajasthan Governor Pratibha Patil as the UPA-Left candidate for the presidential election has sent two signals to the political circles. First, Patil could become the first woman to occupy the august office and by choosing her, the UPA-Left combine has tried to reach out to the women constituency. Second, her choice over prominent Congress leaders including serving Cabinet ministers emphatically indicates that loyalty to the Congress, political consistency and secular credentials are central to the nomination of any functionary to a top position. The choice was also governed by the fact that Patil is a low-profile personality and probably will never flex her muscles the way some others could have done, had they been chosen and elected.
However, Patil’s election as the President may not be a cakewalk even though the UPA-Left coalition has got the required numbers. Congress managers especially party president Sonia Gandhi’s political secretary Ahmed Patel, who played an important role in getting the allies to agree to Patil’s name, will have to work overtime to ensure her success. The election will have to be managed in a professional manner, and not in the casual way like it was done during some recent assembly elections.
The stakes are too high for the Congress and any setback could have serious repercussions for the UPA at the Centre. This is something the UPA constituents cannot afford, especially since no one wants a mid-term poll. The UPA must exercise caution because many Congress MPs had voted against their party candidate during the last vice-presidential elections in which Bhairon Singh Shekhawat humbled Sushilkumar Shinde by more votes than the NDA had in its kitty.
Elections are not always won because required numbers are on one’s side. In realpolitik, several other considerations come into play particularly when a political person like Shekhawat is the other candidate. Ideally speaking, Shekhawat who has had a very successful political innings should not contest but retire gracefully and allow a woman to occupy the august office as a consensus candidate. But ideal situations are rare, and unheard of, in politics and grace is an attribute which very few of our politicians possess.
The practical thing, therefore, is to expect a fierce contest between Patil who has the numbers, and Shekhawat who has guile and experience. On the chessboard, the difference between the ruling alliance and its allies on one side and that of the combined opposition on the other is not very high. There is every possibility that big money can also play a role in influencing independent legislators whose voting strength is estimated to be over 68,000. And since the voting is going to be through secret ballot, the possibility of disgruntled elements in the ruling alliance indulging in cross voting cannot be ruled out.
One estimate indicates that there are almost 40 MPs who could defy their respective party’s choice of candidate and vote on the basis of personal equations with the candidate, or on the basis of their community. This is not to suggest that every member of a candidate’s community will vote for him or her. But the possibility exists.
If Shekhawat enters the fray as an independent candidate, backed by the NDA and other opposition groups, he will use his immense political skills to reach out to the electorate. The BJP and its managers will help him put up a tough fight for the Congress and its allies. Shekhawat is a formidable opponent, even if the numbers do not add up in his favour at this stage.
If the Congress and its partners fail in their mission, it may change the face of Indian politics. In fact, the presidential polls could very well pave the way for a re-alignment of forces, both within and outside the two existing alliances. This could precipitate a crisis for which the ruling alliance must be mentally prepared. There are many in the Congress itself who feel that a woman candidate is all very well, but Patil as the final choice can pose problems. The party managers, thus, need to overcome these hurdles and convince everyone about the choice. Others are upset that the Congress was bulldozed into releasing a name other than those shortlisted by the Left and allies.
But coalition politics is all about accommodation and not confrontation. For instance, Home Minister Shivraj Patil was supposed to have been the Congress president’s first choice. He would have made a good president, but then Sonia Gandhi was not expected to push his name beyond a point. She gave up on him when she witnessed hostility from the Left. She was acting not only as the Congress president but also as the UPA chairperson.
Old-timers like M.L.Fotedar recall that it is a Congress tradition that the names doing the initial rounds are never the ones in the final discussions. Strategically, it is a political masterstroke. In this case too, the Congress was able to get its candidate accepted by its allies and partners after the initial names were eliminated on one pretext or the other. And, in any case, the Congress wanted to appeal to women, and also select a non-controversial candidate.
The question is whether the selected candidate will win against her more famous rival and whether the Congress-UPA-Left choice will get the electorate’s endorsement. Much will depend on the unrealised ambitions of many politicians. But with fair play and voting on expected lines, Patil will certainly be the next President. If the result is different, then the country will not only have a new president but also a new Prime Minister. Between us.