Elusive consensus

Print edition : June 08, 2002

As President K.R. Narayanan's term nears its end, conflicting perceptions and interests stand in the way of the major political parties and formations agreeing on the choice of a successor.

PURNIMA S. TRIPATHI SUKUMAR MURALIDHARAN in New Delhi

WITH fewer than two months to go before the tenure of President K.R. Narayanan ends, consensus remains elusive on the choice of his successor. The Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress(I), which are the two most influential political blocs in determining who the next presidential incumbent will be, remain divided by conflicting perceptions and interests.

President K.R. Narayanan.-RAJEEV BHATT

An unfortunate aspect of the ongoing deliberations is the shedding of the discretion normally associated with identifying candidates for the highest constitutional post. The Congress(I), after party president Sonia Gandhi had held a brief meeting with Narayanan, indicated that he had an "open mind" on seeking a fresh term of office. But shortly afterwards, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee met the President and, by all accounts, sanctioned the media leak that he had shut the door on the possibility of a second term.

The Congress(I) believes that Narayanan deserves a second term by virtue of his outstanding track record as a principal trustee of constitutional values. Publicly, the BJP has couched its opposition to the proposal in terms of convention. No President since Rajendra Prasad, they say, has enjoyed a second term, not even such an eminently deserving individual as Dr. S. Radhakrishnan. Besides, they say, Narayanan is not in the best of health and frequent indisposition could be a constraint in the smooth transaction of the affairs of state.

Informally, BJP spokes persons are willing to make their fundamental objections clearer. As a senior BJP leader puts it, Narayanan "is not in tune with the party and the very fact that other names are being discussed implies that we do not support him."

There will be few takers for the argument that the President of the republic has to define his world-view in terms of a particular party's ideology. Those who have chosen to endorse a second term for Narayanan put their case in terms of broader constitutional norms. "He has performed his constitutional obligations with excellence, while never exceeding his brief," says Congress(I) spokesperson Abhishek Singhvi. Even former Prime Minister V.P. Singh, an influential if politically unaffiliated figure, has expressed himself in favour of Narayanan: "He has conducted himself with grace. He has reminded the government of its duties and obligations towards the poor, the Dalits and minorities, but never exceeded constitutional bounds."

With the Congress(I) and the Left explicitly stating their position, Narayanan today enjoys a higher degree of committed support than any other presidential prospect. Moreover, with the forum of Parliamentarians from the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes expressing themselves in his favour, he has won a degree of cross-party support.

WITH speculation swirling in political circles, Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi met the President towards the end of late-May to seek his views. In keeping with normal proprieties, there was no official word on what was discussed. The leak from the Congress(I) office about Narayanan's receptive attitude to the idea was, by all accounts, a part of the game of manoeuvre the party had embarked on.

A subsequent meeting between Sonia Gandhi and the Prime Minister failed to produce an agreement. BJP sources let it be known that the Prime Minister had not given any personal opinion, though he had put on record his inability to persuade his associates in the ruling coalition of the need to give Narayanan a second term.

There has so far been little talking out loud on the issue, but there are elements within the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) who believe that Narayanan deserves to continue, just as there are sections within the Opposition who believe he should not. The Samajwadi Party (S.P.), which has reasonable numerical clout in the electoral college, belongs to the latter category. And here again, the objections stem from fairly narrow partisanship.

The S.P. has not said anything on the issue as yet, in part because it is averse to upsetting the Left parties, with which it enjoys a close political rapport. Informally, S.P. spokespersons admit that the party has "strong reservations" about Narayanan. They cite the unceremonious dismissal of Romesh Bhandari as Governor of Uttar Pradesh in 1998 for his alleged tilt towards S.P. leader Mulayam Singh Yadav. Although the current gubernatorial incumbent in Lucknow, Vishnu Kant Shastri, they complain, is doing much the same in terms of political partisanship, the President has failed to take note of the matter.

With a certain selectivity of recall, the S.P. leaders also reach back to the political turmoil in Gujarat in 1996 when a BJP Ministry was dismissed shortly after it won a dubious vote of confidence in the Assembly. The same standards, they allege, were not followed after the BJP's Kalyan Singh won a similarly tainted vote in the U.P. House in 1998. Although the S.P. concedes that Narayanan is a person of erudition and distinction, they think that he has often faltered in his appreciation of constitutional procedures.

Part of the S.P.'s pique is of course occasioned by the fact that the Congress(I) is pressing Narayanan's name with great zeal. The Congress(I)'s refusal to lend support to the formation of an S.P. Ministry after the last indecisive outcome of the U.P. Assembly elections still rankles. S.P. leaders are critical of the Congress(I)'s failure to involve other Opposition parties in working out a consensus. Says a senior S.P. leader: "Sonia Gandhi rushed to Narayanan to request him to run for a second term without consulting any of the other Opposition leaders. This is a game of one-upmanship which we strongly oppose."

The Bahujan Samaj Party, even with its avowed agenda of Dalit empowerment, has apparently decided that the newly crafted concord with the BJP is more critical at the current juncture. When the BSP's iron lady and Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Mayawati, was asked about her preferences, she equivocated endlessly and only came out with an answer under intense pressure: "We have nothing against Narayanan. He is a good man. But we will support any candidate sponsored by the BJP-led NDA government."

The BJP today opposes a fresh term for Narayanan because it identifies him as an opponent of the programme to revise the Constitution. Perhaps more unforgivably, he also thwarted the first of three miscued efforts by the BJP and its caste allies in Bihar to dismiss a legitimately constituted State government. Such is the kind of selective recall that constitutes the logical obverse of the S.P. It is quite unmindful of the fact that the use of the President's power to counsel and restrain has followed certain definite standards of consistency in the last five years.

There has been a sharp polarisation over a second term for Narayanan. The Congress(I) and the Left are angry at the manner in which the BJP has ruled the possibility out of court and are insistent on taking the issue to a contest. However, in that event it is more than likely that Narayanan will informally tell them that he is not willing to enter a contest.

OTHER names that have emerged have conspicuously failed to command any kind of broad-based support. The NDA partners have authorised Vajpayee to take a decision, and with the general mood favouring a consensus, his task was expected to be relatively easy. But all efforts so far seem to have gone askew.

The first name proposed, that of Maharashtra Governor P.C. Alexander, failed conspicuously to enthuse. NDA partners assented with few exceptions, although not with any great warmth. The Opposition chose silence.

The indifference towards Alexander is occasioned by several factors. He has served as Principal Secretary to two Prime Ministers and been a witness from close quarters to the functioning of the executive authority. Although untainted, he had to leave office midway through Rajiv Gandhi's tenure as a gesture of accountability for an espionage scandal involving a member of his staff. But since taking up the gubernatorial assignment in Maharashtra, he is believed to have developed a certain proximity to the Shiv Sena chieftain Bal Thackeray. He did not use his powers of counsel when in 1998 the BJP-Shiv Sena coalition government summarily rejected the meticulously recorded findings of the Srikrishna Commission of Inquiry into the 1992-93 Mumbai riots. Although once an intimate of the Gandhi dynasty, Alexander is believed for all these reasons to have dropped out of favour as far as the Congress(I) is concerned.

The Prime Minister is expected to convene another round of meetings with allied and Opposition parties following his overseas visit in the first week of June. A fresh slate of names is expected to be discussed, including those being urged by the Telugu Desam Party (TDP). Although it is yet to take a decision, the ruling party of Andhra Pradesh is believed to favour Vice-President Krishan Kant, who was the Governor of the State before his elevation. Another name that could be sponsored by the TDP is that of current Andhra Pradesh Governor C. Rangarajan, a distinguished economist and former Governor of the Reserve Bank of India.

Although Rangarajan is considered a long shot, the name of Krishan Kant could re-emerge for a variety of reasons. First, the last three occupants of Rashtrapati Bhavan have all served out five-year internships as Vice-President. Secondly, of all the Vice-Presidents in independent India, all but two have been elevated to the Presidency. These two factors may well become decisive if the deadlock persists and there is a quest for a tie-breaker formula.

KRISHAN KANT is a politician of the old socialist school who has since becoming Vice-President cultivated a fairly sound equation with the BJP. He could be acceptable to the Congress(I), though the Left is known to be indifferent to his claims. "The fact that he is not lobbying, is not shouting from rooftops that he is ready for a contest, and is not being discussed widely could actually go in his favour. We, for one, have nothing against him," said a senior S.P. leader.

The names of Dr. Karan Singh, scion of the erstwhile ruling dynasty of Kashmir, and L.M. Singhvi, jurist and former High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, are also being discussed in political circles. Opinions on both names are sharply polarised. Although Karan Singh may find favour with the Congress(I), the BJP will find it hard to field the man who opposed Vajpayee in the Lucknow Lok Sabha contest in 1999. Singhvi, whose son functions as a Congress(I) spokesperson, is considered by sections within the Opposition as a man who was all too eager to strike an alliance of convenience with the BJP to gain a Rajya Sabha seat, after enjoying the favour of the Congress(I) in all preceding assignments.

Despite his obvious disinterest, sections within the BJP have been discreetly circulating the name of A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, former chief of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). Kalam himself, till recently a pivotal figure in the Indian missile programme, seems deeply embarrassed by the attention. At a public function in Anand in April, he brushed off questions about his preparedness for the post. And in a conversation with Frontline he was explicit: "Please leave me out of this. There are some people out there who would like it, but not me. I am busy doing what I like best - teaching students science and encouraging schoolchildren to take up the sciences. The joy I feel when I see their creativity and motivation cannot be replaced by anything else."

The first scientist since Nobel laureate physicist C.V. Raman to be honoured with the Bharat Ratna, Kalam obviously prefers the easy informality of the laboratory and the classroom to the stiff ceremonial atmosphere of Rashtrapati Bhavan. Moreover, his knowledge of public affairs and constitutional procedures is perhaps cursory.

The BJP's interests in putting forward the reluctant scientist's name are evident. Although the tokenism of rotating high constitutional posts between communities is now viewed with a large measure of public scepticism, the elevation of a Muslim to the presidency, they reckon, could serve to shore up the badly battered faith of a religious minority in India's republican values.

Even if the therapeutic values of political tokenism were to be conceded, the rank opportunism of the programme being pushed by a party that has provided a comfortable roost for the egregious Chief Minister of Gujarat has put off virtually everybody who values Kalam's contribution to the national research effort. Of all the major parties, only the S.P. has so far expressed itself positively on his candidacy. Others have chosen to reserve their comment till a formal proposal is put forward.

The Election Commission is expected to issue a notification by June 10 at the latest, formally setting in motion the process for the election. "We would like to complete the process by July 15 at the latest," said an E.C. official. K.R. Narayanan's term ends on July 24.

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