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Clear winner

Print edition : Aug 10, 2007 T+T-

UPA nominee Pratibha Patil wins big and the BJPs attempt to convert the poll into a game of realpolitik comes a cropper.

VENKITESH RAMAKRISHNAN in New Delhi

A SENSE of cheerfulness was palpable in the precincts of Parliament House as the mounted guard of honour escorted the limousine carrying Pratibha Devisingh Patil, Indias first woman President, in its first journey towards Rashtrapati Bhavan after the swearing-in ceremony on the evening of July 25.

Leaders of all political parties were present at the ceremony. Among them were leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), including former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, party president Rajnath Singh, former Vice-President and defeated presidential candidate Bhairon Singh Shekhawat and former Union Minister Sushma Swaraj, who had virtually led the trenchant campaign against Pratibha Patil, and Najma Heptulla who is the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) candidate for the post of Vice-President.

Najma Heptulla even stated exuberantly to the media: It is a matter of pride that a woman has been sworn in as the President after so many years of freedom. It appeared as if the bitterness that characterised the election campaign was a thing of the past.

Still, a number of leaders and Members of Parliament (MPs) of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which emerged in the election as one of the strongest supporters of the Congress and the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) led by it, used the occasion to draw attention to the slip-ups of the BJP in the election.

This group of leaders, including the BSPs number two, Satish Chandra Mishra, and a number of MPs, had accompanied their party chief and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati to the swearing-in. After the ceremony, standing outside the main gate of Parliament House and a little away from leaders of other parties, they discussed issues relating to the election.

Noting the bonhomie that the BJP leaders exuded, they said it would have been far better if the leadership of the principal Opposition party had shown the same sense of accommodation during the campaign.

The reference, obviously, was to the manner in which the BJP made a series of allegations against Pratibha Patil and her relatives, ranging from financial irregularities to bank scams to involvement in a murder case. The vehemence with which they made the allegations was reflected in senior BJP leader Lal Krishna Advanis statement that Pratibha Patil was not fit to occupy Rashtrapati Bhavan. He even demanded that the Congress and the UPA withdraw her candidature. One can say better late than never, but in all probability the drubbing the BJP received in the election must have helped implant this change of style and sense of accommodation, said one of the MPs.

Advanis explanation a day earlier for the BJPs participation in the swearing-in was that it considered the sanctity of the countrys highest constitutional office to be more important than the person elected to the post. Advani said the BJP is a firm believer in the constitutional order and therefore it will continue to show due respect to the office of the President of India.

Advani maintained that his party was not apologetic about the issues it had raised in the campaign phase and added that they would continue to be as relevant in the time to come as they were before. The outcome of the election, Advani emphasised, does not in the least diminish the importance of the issues raised to Indias polity.

Obviously, the political reasoning of the BJP leadership does not suggest even remotely that it slipped up during the campaign. But even the impressive rationalisation skills of Advani cannot shroud the resounding defeat the party suffered in the election. It was a comprehensive defeat both in terms of numbers and in terms of the strategic objective of the campaign.

The fundamental objective of the campaign was to motivate conscience voting from segments of the presidential electoral college, including those belonging to pro-UPA political organisations and those affiliated to the United National Progressive Alliance (UNPA), a combination of eight regional parties including the Samajwadi Party (S.P.), the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) and the Telugu Desam Party (TDP).

The calculation in BJP circles was that the allegations against Pratibha Patil and Bhairon Singh Shekhawats personal connections with legislators belonging to the constituents of the UPA and the UNPA would help fulfil the conscience-vote objective.

But, as it turned out, not only was the BJP not able to garner votes from the other side, it also lost the assured votes of its own legislators. In the final tally, Pratibha Patil had a vote value of 6,38,116 and Shekhawat 3,31,306 in an electoral college with a total vote value of 10.98 lakh.

The electoral college consisted of 4,472 votes. Of this, 4,394 were the valid votes this time, with a value of 9,69,422. In the proportional representation system of voting, MPs have a uniform value of 708 for each vote, while the value of the vote of a Member of a Legislative Assembly (MLA) differs from State to State. Uttar Pradesh, the most populous State, accounts for the highest value of 208 for each vote and Sikkim the lowest value of seven.

In terms of vote share, Pratibha Patil won 65.82 per cent of the valid votes. The break-up is as follows: In Parliament, 442 votes for Pratibha Patil and 232 for Shekhawat; in the States and Union Territories put together, 2,489 votes for Pratibha Patil and 1,217 for Shekhwat. These figures came as a shock to the BJP leadership as it had expected Shekhawat to get a minimum vote value of 3,41,000.

A close observation of the polling showed that the so-called conscience voting that the BJP banked on actually worked in favour of the UPA candidate. Pratibha Patil gained from cross-voting in the BJP-ruled States of Gujarat and Chhattisgarh. In Gujarat, the repercussions of the election manifested, almost immediately, in the expulsion of four MLAs who apparently voted for Pratibha Patil. All the four belong to the faction opposed to Chief Minister Narendra Modi.

Pratibha Patil also made unexpected gains in Assam, where 15 legislators of the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), a constituent of the UNPA, voted in her favour. In BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh, too, Shekhawat got fewer votes than expected, as about 11 votes were invalidated because they were inscribed with pro-Hindutva slogans such as Jai Sri Ram.

The BJPs partners in the NDA and it allies outside it also let the party down. The Shiv Sena broke ties with the party at the start of the campaign stating that it would not oppose the candidature of fellow-Maharashtraian Pratibha Patil. On polling day, the Trinamul Congress and the Janata Dal (Socialist), partners of the BJP in West Bengal and Karnataka respectively, abstained.

Shekhawats celebrated connections seem to have worked in only two States: Rajasthan, his home State, where he got the support of four INLD members, and Tamil Nadu, where he got 58 votes from members of the AIADMK and the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK). In Madhya Pradesh, some evidence of his connections could be seen as five members of the S.P. voted in his favour.

Members of these parties, all constituents of the UNPA, voted for Shekhawat despite the decision of their respective parties to abstain. But these gains were offset by the loss of BJP votes in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.

There are interpretations, however, that the pro-Shekhawat turn in Tamil Nadu and Madhya Pradesh are not exactly a manifestation of his own connections but the result of some hard work put in at the Centre and in the States by BJP leaders such as former Finance Minister Jaswant Singh.

The quantitative dimensions of the contest were far worse for the BJP than expected. In qualitative terms, it showed that mere allegations were not enough to sway committed Members of Parliament and the State Assemblies. It also affirmed that for a legislator, political affiliations were more important than personal connections .

The BJP had built up its campaign by raising the hope in its rank and file that its strategy would at least serve to embarrass the UPA and the Congress, but going by the results the effort seems to have boomeranged.

The BJP is not the only political party that has suffered because of the breakdown in morale. The UNPA, which has been trying to assert its presence on the nations political scene over the last two months, faced a similar fate. AIADMK chief Jayalalithaa feigned ignorance about her legislators decision to give up the abstention of presidential poll line and maintained that her MLAs and MPs voted on their own without any instructions from her. She blamed the U-turn of her legislators on the unnecessary confusion about polling created by the Election Commission.

The argument did not carry any credibility. More importantly, it exposed the UNPAs lack of organisational and political cohesiveness as a Third Front, which proclaims an equidistant line from the Congress-led UPA and the BJP-led NDA.

The flip-flop of the AIADMK and the INLD showed that the UNPA did not have the ideological clarity it claimed to have. It also indicated that in spite of the proclaimed equidistance from the NDA and the UPA, parties such as the AIADMK and the INLD would like to keep their options open with the BJP and the NDA.

Overall, the presidential poll struck a decisive blow against the BJPs hopes of converting it into a game of realpolitik. The poll also seriously damaged the UNPAs credentials as a principled political formation. Whether the bonhomie at the swearing-in is the BJPs tactical retreat or an unconditional acceptance of Pratibha Patils presidency only time will tell.

Meanwhile, Indias first woman President listed her priorities in her maiden speech. She maintained that empowerment of women is particularly important to her as it leads to the empowerment of the nation. She called for universal education and promised to fight for the vast mass of the underprivileged in the country.

Honest pursuit of such an agenda should evoke widespread support from across the political spectrum and the masses.