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Pratibha Patil: my role in her nomination*

The UPA-Left meeting began with logjam. Congress was determined to press ahead with Shivraj Patil or, at least, Karan Singh and Sushil Kumar Shinde, writes Karan Thapar.

india Updated: Jun 17, 2007 01:39 IST

Perhaps I should begin with an apology. I’m about to blow my trumpet. Although it’s music to my ears I know to others it can sound discordant, even irritating. But today I trust you will forgive me or, at least, understand why I do so.

I think I had a small role to play in the fact the UPA-Left have chosen a woman as their candidate for President. If I’m not mistaken, the idea originated with me. Here’s my story. See what you make of it.

Almost six weeks ago, on the 6th of May, I interviewed the general secretary of the Communist Party of India, AB Bardhan. In the second half of our conversation we discussed who should be the next President. I asked him if in the 60th year of India’s independence it would be fitting if it was a woman. “Not a bad idea,” he replied. Would he canvass his fellow Left parties? Yes, he answered. And what about Sonia Gandhi? After a moment of diplomatic hesitation, he agreed to try and persuade her as well.

Thereafter, to be honest, I forgot this conversation. The politics of the selection seemed to suggest my question was misplaced rather than prescient. There wasn’t a hope of a woman getting the job. So last Thursday, as I watched the drama on television, my mind flashed back. Was I in some way responsible for this outcome?

“Yes,” responded AB Bardhan when I telephoned. In fact he barely gave me a chance to finish my question. “After it was over I said to Sonia Gandhi ‘Do you know who put the idea into my head? Karan Thapar in that funny programme of his, Devil’s Advocate’.”

“And what did she say?”

“She laughed.” Then, after a pause, he added “So did everyone else.”

My curiosity aroused, I rang all the contacts I have to piece together the story. How exactly had this come to pass? From what I’ve been told this is the sequence.

The UPA-Left meeting began with logjam. Congress was determined to press ahead with Shivraj Patil or, at least, Karan Singh and Sushil Kumar Shinde. The Left was adamantly opposed. Recognising this impasse, Sitaram Yechuri spoke out. We need a new name, he said. And then, cleverly using Manmohan Singh’s favourite phrase, he added the time had come to think out of the box.

This was when Bardhan made his bid. “It’s time for a woman. After 60 years the next president should be one.” Something of my interview had lingered in his memory. That, at least, is what he told me. Suddenly Manmohan Singh intervened. “What about Pratibha Patil?” No one can explain what made the normally reticent PM speak out. Had Bardhan primed him? Did Yechuri have a quiet word? Who knows.

The PM’s suggestion took everyone by surprise. But it’s also true that no one could find fault with it. Bardhan was the first to endorse it. He seemed to know more about Ms. Patil’s background than anyone else. Seconds later Yechuri, speaking for the powerful CPM, added his support. That sealed it. Then guess what happened? For this part of the story I have three witnesses — Messrs Yechuri, Bardhan and D Raja. But let me give you the version told by AB Bardhan. After all, he’s the one who did the talking.

“I looked at Sonia Gandhi and told her you were responsible. No one could really believe it. They all laughed. So did I.”

I’m amazed by the series of accidents and coincidences that lay behind this decision. That I was one of them is no big thing. Yet it’s proof that little questions can have an influence way beyond their original intention or anyone’s imagination. Fate has mysterious ways. Things fall into a pattern no one can map in advance.

An SMS from my friend Ravi Visvesvaraya Prasad sums it up. “So it turns out your interview with AB Bardhan about a woman President was really prescient. Was it coincidence, ESP or inside information?”

It certainly wasn’t inside information for the simple reason the insiders hadn’t thought of it themselves. But was it coincidence or ESP? Hmmm.

Perhaps there’s a simpler explanation. Remember the aphorism about great minds thinking alike? Well, the second half asserts that fools seldom differ! Are the Left, the PM and I great minds? Or is it the other way round? I wonder what Bhairon Singh Shekhawat would have to say?

(*with apologies to Spike Milligan)

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