The Congress tries to sidestep the perceived consensus around Union Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee as its presidential nominee.
THE Congress party is faced with a unique dilemma over the presidential election that is due in the last week of July. Ironically, the worry is not about how to get its nominee accepted by other parties but about how to circumvent the nominee who is believed to have already been accepted by everyone else. If initial media reports are anything to go by, Union Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee and Vice-President Hamid Ansari have emerged as the most likely choices. Mukherjee because of his seniority and political acumen and Ansari because of the precedent that the Vice-President gets elevated to the post of President if all other factors are in his favour.
The support for Mukherjee cuts across party lines. But his own party, the Congress, has been singularly reticent in indicating approval for his candidature. Senior Congress leaders, when directly confronted with questions on whether the Finance Minister's name has been finalised, flatly reject the assumption and claim it is all a bubble created by the media with no truth in it.
Congress spokesperson Manish Tiwari denied that any such understanding had been arrived at within the party even at an informal level. The media are talking in the air. As far as I know, there has been no consultation on this so far, and the process will begin only after the Election Commission issues the notification, which may be sometime in June. Hence everything else is a mere conjecture at this stage, he said.
However, almost all the constituents of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), barring Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress, have voiced support for him. A senior Congress leader who did not want to be named said the party was not keen on Mukherjee because he was perceived as being too politically active. Ideally, the party would want someone who is not so politically dynamic. Pranab Mukherjee still has a lot of active politics left in him, and this makes him unfit for the post, the senior leader said. Besides, since the Congress on its own does not have the required number of votes, it will need support from other parties. And here the Trinamool Congress becomes important. Though Mamata Banerjee has not yet spelt out her preference, she is believed to have reservations about Mukherjee.
In this context, Hamid Ansari seemed to be a more reliable choice, the leader said. Ansari is known to be mild-mannered, enjoys support across parties, and has already proved his worth to the Congress while handling the Lokpal Bill in the Rajya Sabha. Besides, his elevation to the top post would give out all the right political signals ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. His being a member of the minority community, that too from Uttar Pradesh, and an academic (he is former Vice-Chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University) who enjoys the support of the Left parties makes him the ideal choice. Besides, even belligerent leaders such as Mulayam Singh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party, who commands a substantial chunk of votes, Mamata Banerjee, and Sharad Yadav of the Janata Dal (United) are known to be favourably disposed towards Ansari.
Leaders of other parties contacted by this correspondent also admitted that their information was that the Congress was not likely to nominate Mukherjee. One of them said: He is not acceptable to Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi.
According to another senior Congress leader, who is also a member of the Congress Working Committee, not elevating Ansari would give a wrong message to the Muslim community, something which would weigh heavily against the party's prospects in the general elections that are due in 2014. Here we are trying to woo Muslims, then how are we going to explain if we don't elevate him to the top post, given that we already have such precedents? Besides, his candidature will find favour with others such as the Left because he was the Left parties' candidate for the post of Vice-President.
D. Raja of the Communist Party of India (CPI) confirmed that the Left parties, which had had one round of preliminary meetings among themselves, had no objection to Ansari's name. Our only contention is that whoever is nominated should have a wider appeal and should be acceptable to all. It is for the Congress party to announce the name first, but we have no specific objection to either of them, he said, referring to both Mukherjee and Ansari.
That Ansari has been chairing the Rajya Sabha efficiently for five years also goes in his favour. Having a totally new name being considered for the top post seems difficult now. Knowing Mrs [Sonia] Gandhi, it appears she would settle for the safe bet. She is not known for ruffling too many feathers while taking decisions, said this Congress leader.
Interestingly, many Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders this correspondent spoke to said though it was still too early to comment, the party would support Ansari if the Congress proposed his name. Just in case we decide to oppose him, then what are the options before us? We will have to field someone knowing full well that person would be defeated. This does not make good political sense. The President should be above politics and we, as a party, should have no problem supporting Ansari, this senior BJP leader, who is a member of the party's Parliamentary Board, said. The BJP has already sounded out former President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, but he has refused the offer, anticipating sure defeat.
Interestingly, what has apparently jeopardised Mukherjee's prospect is the outpouring of support for him from all quarters the moment his name appeared in the media. This has not gone down well with the party high command. There obviously is a lot of lobbying involved. It is not only out of love that everybody, including the BJP, is speaking for him, said a Congress leader.
Mukherjee and Ansari are the two names dominating speculation right now, but a dark horse may well emerge at the eleventh hour. The names of Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar, Congress leader Sushil Kumar Shinde and technocrat Sam Pitroda are also popping up, but senior Congress leaders do not attach too much importance to them. Meira Kumar, because the incumbent is a woman, is ruled out. Shinde also is ruled out because, like Pratibha Patil, he is from Maharashtra. Sam Pitroda is a totally non-political person and many leaders have already spelt out their preference for a political person to occupy the top post. So that leaves only Mukherjee and Ansari in the race.