Can Sushma Swaraj for president inspire a govt-Opposition tango?

The BJP leader has a good equation with Sonia Gandhi and is largely acceptable to other political parties.

opinion Updated: Jun 18, 2017 22:52 IST
Vinod Sharma
Vinod Sharma
Hindustan Times
Sushma Swaraj,Sonia Gandhi,Venkaiah Naidu
Sushma Swaraj’s prospects acquire special value if the NDA is honestly seeking a consensus on the next president.(UN)

There is scope for intelligent speculation when the government is scouting for talent on the promise of assembling a consensus on the candidature for the top constitutional office — the Republic’s President.

Union ministers Rajnath Singh and Venkaiah Naidu have met, among others, Congress president Sonia Gandhi to convey the desirability of a bipartisan candidate. But they desisted putting a name or a face to the principle behind the move.

It’s true the Congress did not consult the BJP on Patibha Patil’s 2012 candidature, which led to an unedifying campaign for the office. The saddest part was that Patil succeeded APJ Abdul Kalam, who was the National Democratic Alliance-I and the Congress’ consensus choice. A tango is doable even now. Utopian though it may seem in our divided polity, the objective should be to get the best person for the job. There’s no paucity of people whose competence compliments their acceptability. Take the case of external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj. She’s political and partisan to the BJP. But there can be convergence on her name.

The possibility of her candidature is open. Unlike Naidu, who was initially counted among the aspirants, she hasn’t been drafted for talks with the Opposition. That keeps her in the reckoning, also ruling out the other two interlocutors: Rajnath and Arun Jaitley.

Swaraj’s prospects acquire special value if the NDA is honestly seeking a consensus on the next president. She has a rapport with Ms Gandhi and the prime minister knows that. In December last year, he had assigned her to separately brief the ailing Congress leader on the army’s surgical strike across the Line of Control. That’s not to suggest that the Sonia-Swaraj equation will automatically translate into Congress support. She’d have to contest and win. But the Opposition will be divided and the battle one-sided. Others in the BJP stable such as Uttar Pradesh Governor Ram Naik or Odisha’s Draupadi Murmu don’t measure up to the office at stake. That brings one to the non-political side. Names that at first glance qualify as potential consensus candidates are in public domain: E Sreedharan, Azim Premji, NR Narayana Murthy and Nandan Nilekani.

One’s inclined to add to the list geneticist MS Swaminathan, albeit not for the reasons the Shiv Sena did. At 92, age is against him. But the protagonist of the Green Revolution is presidential grade. He’s active and is mentally agile. One cannot but also take note of intellectual-diplomat Gopalkrishna Gandhi who was secretary to President KR Narayanan. He has the lineage and scholarship to match the office. But ideologically he may not be acceptable to the BJP.

Two recent presidencies are cited by advocates of domain expertise in Rashtrapati Bhawan: Narayanan, an administrator-diplomat with experience of electoral politics; Abdul Kalam a rocket scientist of repute. Their overlapping presidencies had their share of run-ins with AB Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh. But they conducted themselves with the dignity befitting their constitutional mandate.

Narayanan had a role in the deployment of army to check the 2002 Gujarat riots. He broke precedent to become the first sitting-President to vote in a general election (1999) and kept pending Vajpayee’s proposal to confer Bharat Ratna on Veer Savarkar.

A student of Harold Laski, the politically savvy Narayanan had a keen sense of history. Kalam was less endowed on either count. So he signed, while on a visit to Moscow, a proclamation sent by the UPA to dissolve the Bihar assembly. Kalam wanted to resign when the action was held “unconstitutional” by the Supreme Court. Had he not allowed himself to be persuaded to continue, Singh’s government would have fallen, what with the president owning up responsibility for following the Cabinet’s advice?

Looking back, their disagreements with the executive were principled, not political or temperamental. They did not work at cross-purposes with elected regimes. They only sought to work the oath they took: To preserve, protect and defend the Constitution. That’s the way the presidency hasn’t always been. But needs to be: Honest, upright and unattached.

The author tweets as @vinodsharmaview

First Published: Jun 18, 2017 22:40 IST