Presidential race

Print edition : July 13, 2012

Pranab Mukherjee, who is the front runner in the contest.-B. MATHUR/REUTERS

The manner in which Pranab Mukherjee was chosen as candidate underscores the growing importance of regional parties.

The early run-up to the presidential election of 2012 was marked by two projections. One was that the contest to choose the next head of Indian state would turn out to be an exciting affair that could complicate the political situation. The other was that regional parties, which have enhanced their political strength consistently over many elections held in the past two years, including the Assembly elections to five States in February-March, would have an overwhelming influence on deciding the candidates and the winner. But as the D-Day of July 19 approaches, the first projection has become a reality. The second has not come to pass because the countrys leading party, the Congress, has been able to present its veteran leader and Finance Minister Pranab Kumar Mukherjee as the candidate of the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA). However, a closer look at the manner in which Mukherjees name was chosen underscores the importance of regional parties in this election.

In fact, many of the developments that unfolded in the run-up to the election were in connection with the selection of Mukherjee as the Congress and UPA candidate. In the process, the political firmament witnessed the unravelling of serious differences in the UPA between the Trinamool Congress, its second largest constituent, and others, particularly the Congress. The differences are so serious that political observers foresee a parting of ways of the two partners in the near future. The departure of the Trinamool Congress from the UPA, particularly its timing, is still a matter of conjecture.

Former Lok Sabha Speaker P.A. Sangma resigned from the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), which is a part of the UPA, to become the candidate supported by the principal opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Sangmas candidature was endorsed by two strong regional forces, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the Biju Janata Dal, the ruling parties in Tamil Nadu and Orissa respectively. Both had been partners of the BJP in the past, but are currently not its allies.

Commotion struck the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) too when its long-term partners, the Janata Dal (United) and the Shiv Sena, decided to support Mukherjee instead of Sangma. Both opted for Mukherjee on the grounds of his long experience in government and his political acceptability across political and ideological divides.

The Left parties, too, went different ways. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Forward Bloc decided to support Mukherjee stating that in the present situation, he is the candidate for the post of President who has the widest acceptance. The Communist Party of India and the Revolutionary Socialist Party, on the other hand, decided to abstain from the election saying that they were not ready to support the Finance Minister because he has been one of the main proponents of the neoliberal economic policy in the country.

The JD(U)s differences with the BJP, by all indications, is not confined to the issue of the presidential election. Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar of the JD(U) and Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi of the BJP have been engaged in a slanging match for quite some time on a number of issues ranging from development to casteism to communalism. Recently, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) challenged Nitish Kumars position on the need for the NDA to have a secular prime ministerial candidate and openly declared its preference for a Prime Minister with a Hindutva orientation. Political observers in Delhi, Bihar and Gujarat are of the view that more explosive developments are on the cards in the relationship between these two parties.

Trinamool-S.P. salvo

Apart from these developments, the excitement quotient in relation to the election touched new heights when, at one point, West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee and Samajwadi Party (S.P.) president Mulayam Singh Yadav suggested the names of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, former President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam and former Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee as potential candidates. The coming together of the duo was perceived by a large section of the political class as the beginning of a decisive realignment of forces at the national level. The assumption was that both Mamata and Mulayam Singh would prefer an early general election in order to convert the advantage they had in the Assembly elections into a larger presence in the Lok Sabha; and that the duo was getting ready to thwart the plans of the Congress in the presidential election and engineer a collapse of the Union government, thus leading to mid-term elections.

This assumption got greater credence because Mamata and Mulayam Singh had literally questioned the political authority of the UPA leadership, particularly that of the Prime Minister, by naming him as a potential candidate for the Presidents post. More important, they had rated Kalam as their first priority and there was a widespread impression that the former President, who was very popular, would be a formidable challenge to the Congress and the UPA if he decided to contest.

P.A. Sangma, who is backed by the BJP.-KAMAL SINGH/PTI

But deft political manoeuvres by the Congress, including its topmost leader Sonia Gandhi, successfully weaned Mulayam Singh away from the Trinamool Congress. The S.P. made a U-turn from its earlier position and announced the partys support to Mukherjee within minutes of the Congress announcing the veteran party leaders candidature.

By all indications, the carrot-and-stick approach was employed to bring the S.P. in line. The S.P., on its part, had reasons to make peace with the Congress. It needs economic assistance for the Akhilesh Yadav government in Uttar Pradesh and the Centres benevolence in handling cases of economic offences against its leaders, including Mulayam Singh.

At the end of it all, Mamata found herself isolated. Besides, there were suggestions that there would be cross-voting from her party in favour of Mukherjee, who also hails from West Bengal.

Congress climbdown

Beyond all this, the turnaround happened because of a climbdown of sorts by the Congress leadership. It was no secret that Mukherjee was not the first choice of the Congress leadership, particularly the partys first family. The Gandhi familys preferred choice initially was Vice-President Hamid Ansari. If his name was not acceptable to allies and supporting parties, the leadership apparently had other names like that of former Union Minister Karan Singh on its list.

Mukherjee, on his part, was keen on getting into the constitutional office of the President and had, in the meantime, launched a self-promotion campaign of sorts, albeit not as openly as Sangma did. Even then, there was no positive response from the Congress leadership. Many supporters of the West Bengal leader even started complaining that Mukherjee was being treated without regard and consideration by the Congress leadership.

However, all this changed dramatically, as it were, when Mulayam Singh and Mamata came up with the name of Manmohan Singh for President. This evoked rumours that the duo had propped up the name at the behest of the Congress leadership, which wanted to remove Manmohan Singh from the topmost administrative position. The party leadership had to dispel this notion at all costs, and it came to the conclusion that endorsing Mukherjees candidature would be the best way to do this for the simple reason that his name would attract greater support from regional parties than other names did. It was thus that Mukherjees name was announced with the endorsement of Mulayam Singh.

The support of the S.P. and the Shiv Sena has made Mukherjee the front runner in the contest. With the JD(U) and the Left parties also endorsing his candidature, the veteran politician is expected to sail through. But given the political permutations and combinations such as Sangmas departure from the UPA and the realignments it could create among UPAs partners in some parts of the country, it could not be said that Mukherjee has reached a sure-win situation. Clearly, there are expectations about many more exciting and complicated developments before July 19. These developments would well underscore the growing importance of regional parties in the national polity.

More importantly, these developments would also ensure that though the Congress has managed to have its way vis-a-vis the election of its candidate for the Presidents position, this does not straightaway lead to an assertion of its hegemony in national politics, especially in the context of the beatings the party and its coalition have taken from several scams and the policy paralysis that characterises their governance.

As pointed out by political observers, Mukherjees candidature has divested the Congress of its most effective political troubleshooter and one who could communicate and do business with parties across the political and ideological spectrum. However, there are sections of the political class that believe that as President, he can bring in great political acumen and sagacity into national politics, especially at a time when a climate of political uncertainty awaits the country after the next general election.

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