Madam President: Why Sushma Swaraj may be an ace in Narendra Modi’s deck of cards
If Sushma Swaraj is the next president we would finally have a woman president who goes beyond the symbolism of her gender. Unlike the little-known Pratibha Patil, she would have more than earned the position compared to her female predecessor
Perhaps there are only two things about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision-making that can be forecast with any certainty — he likes to disrupt status quo assumptions with an element of surprise (more shock and awe, really) and all his decrees carry a highly personalised imprint of authority and ownership (there is no community- driven resolution in this government).
If you look at Modi’s key decisions — going public with the surgical strikes, demonetisation or the last minute choice of Yogi Adityanath as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh — not one of them was predictable. So the usual caveats apply to any speculation over who the government wants as the next President of India. That said, there is good reason to argue that July will see a madam president in Rashtrapati Bhavan. There are very good political reasons for a contender to emerge from a shortlist of three accomplished women — Sushma Swaraj, Sumitra Mahajan and Draupadi Murmu. Of these there is no question that Swaraj would be the best candidate.
The first reason that makes Swaraj a favourite for the post is that her nomination would easily break Opposition unity. The personal popularity of the external affairs minister — remember how Parliament erupted in warm applause when she returned after her kidney transplant — has ensured she has many friends across the aisle. Regional stalwarts like Mamata Banerjee and Nitish Kumar have already indicated a willingness to consider supporting a consensus candidate if s/he is not a Hindutva hardliner; Swaraj could easily be that nominee.
Though the Modi government will easily win the presidential election if it comes down to one — the small shortfall in numbers could easily come from state parties like YRS Congress or the AIADMK factions — there is a clear political advantage in isolating the Congress within its own camp. If Swaraj is the declared candidate the Congress and the Left are likely to be the only Opposition parties who will still insist on a contest.
To drive a wedge through Opposition unity, especially at a time when there are murmurs of a Mahagatbandhan against Modi for 2019, would fit right in with the BJP’s ‘Congress Mukt Bharat’ blueprint. Since Sonia Gandhi is personally leading the dialogue among 17 non-BJP parties to choose a presidential candidate, pulling leaders away from this informal alliance in support of Swaraj would further weaken the clout of the Gandhi brand. This would perfectly suit Amit Shah and Modi’s preparations for 2019. Swaraj is the only political candidate who could trigger this confusion and divide in the Opposition ranks.
The other good reason for Swaraj to be the frontrunner choice is that she would restore an Abdul Kalam-like ‘People’s President’ reputation to the otherwise stodgy and formal office. As minister she has adopted the persona of mom-in-chief to countless stranded Indians across the globe, by turns warm, firm and funny, as she responds to everything from requests for visas to ‘bring-me-back-home’ pleas from an abused wife. Of course it could be argued that with the prime minister doing most of the heavy-lifting in the foreign policy department Swaraj was compelled to reinvent her role. But this accessible charm has helped her build bipartisan popularity in the public imagination, even among trenchant critics of the government. And it’s not as if her Twitter-friendly avatar diminishes her reputation for efficiency and competence. Bureaucrats who have worked with her swear by her professionalism and her firm articulation has often come to the rescue in delicate or sticky situations. Lastly, if Swaraj is the next president (and supreme commander of the armed forces) we would finally have a woman president who goes beyond the symbolism of her gender. Unlike the little-known Pratibha Patil, the seven-term MP has a successful and long record in politics and would have more than earned the position compared to her female predecessor.
The only factor that could work against Swaraj is her past closeness to LK Advani who has been decisively marginalised by Modi. When Swaraj and her family were drawn into a raging controversy around the IPL and businessman Lalit Modi, it was widely believed that her detractors within the BJP were pleased with her being diminished. But Swaraj hunkered down and kept chipping away within the limitations of her job, deliberately steering clear of all media attention. If she is the BJP’s choice for president it will be the final proof that she has reset her terms with the prime minister. And while the other two women contenders have advantages too, Swaraj as madam president will be an ace in Modi’s House of Cards.
Barkha Dutt is an award-winning journalist and author
The views expressed are personal