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The advantages of being lightweight

It is no secret that the powers-that-be in New Delhi not only prefer a political person in Rashtrapati Bhavan but one with a thin political CV. Pratibha Patil is one such example.

india Updated: Jun 15, 2007 13:03 IST

A long-standing political trend was highlighted by the fact that when the lightweight Shivraj Patil proved to be a persona non grata for the Left as a presidential candidate, the Congress turned to the even more lightweight Pratibha Patil to be its - and the ruling United Progressive Alliance's nominee for the post.

Evidently, it is precisely because she is a lesser-known figure outside her state of Maharashtra than even the home minister that she was chosen and is also deemed to have a better chance of success, mainly for being a woman.

And thereby hangs a tale. It is no secret that the powers-that-be in New Delhi not only prefer a political person in Rashtrapati Bhavan - as the Left has been insisting but one with a thin political CV.

The fear apparently is that anyone else, either a genuine heavyweight with a base of his own or a distinguished academic or an eminent Gandhian, may turn out to be a loose cannon. Though it may sound harsh, but an aspirant to the post of the president must be a virtual nonentity in the eyes of his or her sponsors.

It has to be remembered that except for the first president, Rajendra Prasad (1950-62), and for N Sanjeeva Reddy (1977-82), no heavyweights have held the post. Prasad of course belonged to a different era. So, the only person who is relevant in the present context is Reddy.

But, as is known, Reddy was so much of a heavyweight as a member of the anti-Indira Gandhi 'syndicate' in the Congress in the 60s that the then prime minister split the party in 1969 to frustrate his chances of becoming the president.

Instead, it was her nominee, VV Giri, a lightweight, who won. He was succeeded by another lightweight, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, whose only claim to fame is that he meekly signed on the dotted line to promulgate the infamous Emergency on June 25/26 midnight in 1975.

The term, Indira Gandhi's poodle, which was used by The Times of London to describe Giani Zail Singh (1982-87), could also be applied to Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed.

Arguably, Rajendra Prasad's successors, S Radhakrishnan (1962-67), and Zakir Hussain (1967-69), could be considered heavyweights, but only because of their stature as scholars, not as political figures. And by the time Sanjeeva Reddy became president in 1977, the Congress had suffered a heavy defeat because of the Emergency and Reddy himself had lost his earlier clout.

If Pratibha Patil's name was the last to come up during the confabulations among the kingmakers, the reason was that there was no agreement on the other names. Similarly, five years ago, APJ Abdul Kalam's name was considered only because of the lack of unanimity on then Vice President Krishan Kant and Maharashtra Governor PC Alexander.

But although she enters the fray as a rank outsider, one of the points in Pratibha Patil's favour is her quiet and dignified tenure in Jaipur's Raj Bhavan during the period when Shivraj Patil spoilt his own chances by his indifferent performance as the home minister.

In addition, her opposition to the anti-conversion bill in Rajasthan has strengthened her secular credentials. In the eyes of the Left and the Congress, it is a stamp of legitimacy which another claimant, former Jammu and Kashmir maharaja Karan Singh, lacked because of his supposed 'soft' Hindutva inclinations.

Of the others whose names were mentioned, Energy Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde, who was never a front-runner like Shivraj Patil, seems to have lost out because the Dalit card has lost the kind of importance it had when KR Narayanan became the president in 1997.

And External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee was ruled out because he has become too much of a heavyweight in recent years for his party to spare him for a ceremonial job.

But even as Pratibha Patil regards her present elevation as the 'best achievement' of her career, she will be aware that unlike other Congress loyalists, she will have to keep the predilections of more than one party in mind.

As is obvious, the Left's role in scuttling the chances of Shivraj Patil and tilting the balance in her favour has been considerable. If the Congress chose to give in to the pressure tactics of its communist allies, the reason perhaps was that Shivraj Patil's future was not something worth fighting for.

Besides, the Rajasthan governor's nomination can cause no little confusion among the Congress opponents, with even Bhairon Singh Shekhawat perhaps wondering whether it will be politically correct for him to oppose India's first serious woman candidate for the prized post. The same reason may induce second thoughts among some of the parties of the recently formed Third Front.

The gender factor is not the only one that will influence decision-making. Since Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray had already announced his support for fellow Maharashtrian Shivraj Patil, he cannot but extend the same courtesy to another person from the same state.

As is common in India, the interplay of various crosscurrents continues to enliven the political scene, springing surprises on an unsuspecting public. Pratibha Patil's choice is only the latest example.

(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at