The July 15 presidential election will witness a direct contest between National Democratic Alliance nominee A.P.J. Abdul Kalam and the Left parties' candidate Captain Lakshmi Sahgal.
THE July 15 election to the highest constitutional office in the country would not have attracted as much attention as it has, but for the contest put up by the Left parties. Now it is a direct contest between two candidates. Of the 54 nominations filed, only four were found valid after scrutiny on June 26 - two each of National Democratic Alliance (NDA) nominee A.P.J. Abdul Kalam and the Left parties' candidate Captain Lakshmi Sahgal. Twenty-three nominations were rejected outright and 27 declared invalid on scrutiny. According to the rules, a presidential candidate should get his or her nomination proposed and seconded by at least 50 electors each. A maximum of four nominations can be filed by or on behalf of a candidate. A sum of Rs.15,000 has to be deposited as security with each set of nomination papers.
Given the composition of the electoral college and the support extended to him by most of the political parties, it is clear that the scales are tilted in favour of Kalam. Barring the Left, the rest of the political class has thrown its weight behind him. But the 87-year-old Captain Lakshmi Sahgal is no less formidable a fighter. She may not have the prominence of a nominee of the ruling establishment, but her past and her present contributions and dedication are exemplary in their own right. Her long-time association with movements that dealt with the socio-economic and political problems of the country at various levels point to her familiarity with the pulse of the nation.
Although the odds are against her, she and the Left parties are not sparing any effort to put up a good fight. According to the campaign schedule, apart from meeting ordinary people, Lakshmi Sahgal will address legislators in several States. Her itinerary which began in Gujarat on June 29, includes Kolkata, Chennai, Thiruvananthapuram, Mumbai and Hyderabad. The Uttaranchal Kranti Dal, with four legislators, has announced its support for Lakshmi Sahgal.
THERE was a marked contrast in the manner in which the nominations of the two candidates were filed. Although representatives of the NDA, the Congress(I) and the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) were present when Kalam filed his nomination on June 18, the Congress(I) filed a separate set of nominations. This indicated that the consensus is not a comfortable one. The first delegation included important NDA leaders - Home Minister L.K. Advani, Defence Minister George Fernandes, Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pramod Mahajan - and Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu and also S.P. president Mulayam Singh Yadav and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati. The Congress(I) delegation was led by party president Sonia Gandhi and included former Minister of State for External Affairs K. Natwar Singh and party spokesperson S. Jaipal Reddy.
Those who signed the first set of Kalam's nomination papers included Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, Chandrababu Naidu, Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, Mayawati, senior Union Ministers and other NDA leaders. The Congress(I)'s nomination had Sonia Gandhi, former Lok Sabha Speaker Shivraj Patil, former Finance Minister Manmohan Singh, Rajya Sabha Deputy Chairperson Najma Heptullah, former Defence Minister Arjun Singh, party treasurer Ahmed Patel and Congress Working Committee member Ambika Soni as signatories. The Congress(I) was at pains to distance itself from the NDA. It was explained that the Congress(I)'s decision to support Kalam was taken independently and that hence the party had filed a separate set of nominations.
In contrast, Lakshmi Sahgal was accompanied by former Prime Minister and Janata Dal (Secular) president H.D. Deve Gowda, her daughter and president of the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA) Subhashini Ali and Communist Party of India (Marxist) Polit Bureau member S. Ramachandran Pillai. As all the Left parties, including the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), had welcomed her candidature, there was no room for any discomfiture when the delegation came for the filing of nomination. Two sets of nomination papers were filed on behalf of Lakshmi Sahgal. While veteran CPI(M) leader Somnath Chatterjee proposed one set, another was proposed and seconded by West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and his Cabinet colleagues, legislators and Members of Parliament from the State. Others who proposed and seconded included Left leaders from Kerala such as CPI(M) Polit Bureau member and Leader of the Opposition V.S. Achuthanandan and Communist Party of India leader Benoy Vishwam. Lakshmi Sahgal told mediapersons after filing her nomination: "I take the contest as a fight."
Meanwhile, Mulayam Singh Yadav appealed to the Left parties not to oppose Kalam's candidature. Other parties such as the Telugu Desam, the All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) and the Janata Dal (United) made similar appeals. Chandrababu Naidu said that he was pained at the action of the Left parties.
Being a political activist, Lakshmi Sahgal appeared to be well-nuanced in her statements and expressions. At the press conference after her candidature was announced, she made it clear that she had nothing personally against the NDA nominee. On this occasion Lakshmi Sahgal was accompanied by CPI(M) general secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet, Polit Bureau members Prakash Karat and Sitaram Yechury, CPI general secretary A.B. Bardhan, Revolutionary Socialist Party leader Abani Roy and Forward Bloc leader S.C. Gaud.
That her nomination had upset the ruling coalition was evident in the reactions of some NDA representatives. Lakshmi Sahgal's statement that the nomination of Kalam had sent a wrong signal, especially at a time when the Indian and Pakistani armies were facing each other on the border, raised the hackles of the NDA. Earlier, the Left parties too had made a similar statement. Minister for Rural Development M. Venkaiah Naidu accused the Left of vitiating the atmosphere.
THE public reception for Lakshmi Sahgal at the Constitution Club in New Delhi on June 26 partly belied the claims of the NDA that the national interest favoured Kalam and that the nation was pained at the choice made by the Left. The meeting was organised by 22 organisations, including women's groups, farmers' and agricultural workers' unions, lawyers' associations and organisations working in the areas of health and education. Led by AIDWA and the National Federation of Indian Women (NFIW), the meeting was well-attended and the majority of the people came from working class areas. Several artists and academics also attended the meeting. In a brief speech in Hindi, Lakshmi Sahgal spoke of equity and social and economic justice. She said that women could save the country as they were givers and not destroyers of life.
Later, the organisations issued an appeal addressed to the members of Parliament and the State legislatures, which said: "As women and as citizens, we urge you to support the candidature of Captain Lakshmi Sahgal for the post of the President of India. Not only is she the first woman candidate in our country's history to run for the highest constitutional post, but her unblemished record in the service of the country qualifies her as the most suitable candidate for the post. She has in unambiguous terms committed herself to the basic principles of secularism, self-reliance, social justice and peace... Although the post of President has limited powers, we have seen how crucial those become at times when the Constitution is challenged. We need a President who will be able to boldly stand up in defence of secular principles at a time when communal forces threaten to tear our country apart as they are doing in Gujarat. We need a President who will defend India's self-reliance at a time when our economic sovereignty is under severe threat. And we need a President who will speak up for the oppressed, for women, for members of discriminated castes and communities, for the working people, at a time when basic needs of the people are being sacrificed in the name of security."
Defending her candidature as one which "represents the best traditions of democracy", the appeal denied that it was a token one. Recognising the Election Commission's direction that no party whips can be issued in the presidential election, the appeal said: "If ever there was a need for legislators to rise above party considerations in defence of constitutional values, it is now. We appeal to you to listen to the voice of your conscience, which has no doubt been appalled by recent events, including those in Gujarat."
Lakshmi Sahgal's personal statement, issued on June 17, embodied her unflinching commitment to federalism, the Constitution and its vision of a secular democratic republic. The statement explained her commitment to uphold the federal content of the Constitution and to prevent the misuse of Article 356. In her statement, the Indian National Army veteran, who led its Rani Jhansi regiment in 1943, said: "As we fought for India's freedom, a different but equally important effort is required, synergising our pluralistic society of rich diversity to rise in unison to meet the challenges and to safeguard and strengthen what we, the people of India, have built and achieved since Independence."