Presidential election

In for a surprise

Print edition : June 23, 2017

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Pranab Mukherjee. A second term for the President looks unlikely. Photo: PTI

N.R. Narayana Murthy, one of the front runners for the post. Photo: Bloomberg

Sudha Murthy. Photo: Nagara Gopal

Ratan Tata, another possible candidate for the post. Photo: Bloomberg

Prime Minister Narendra Modi will decide who the BJP’s nominee for the post of President will be. Insiders say it could be someone with impeccable credentials from the business world.

WITH less than eight weeks left for the new President to be elected, Prime Minister Narendra Modi yet again reminds the opposition parties of the brute majority he commands in Parliament by completely ignoring them in the process of selection. In what has become his signature style, he is all set to announce his choice to the opposition parties, who can either accept or reject it. But, if indications from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) camp are true, his candidate will be “a person of such eminence that the opposition will have no choice but to accept him”.

According to senior BJP leaders who did not want to be quoted, the Prime Minister is keen to avoid predictable choices like Sushma Swaraj, L.K. Advani or Murli Manohar Joshi. He also wants to avoid persons with overt political affiliations. He has also vetoed politicians who may have retired from public life. He has also ruled out retired service chiefs.

BJP circles are agog with speculation, particularly since no consultation, formal or informal, has been held at any level.“With Modiji, consultation does not happen. He simply takes a decision. At the most, he may or may not consult Amit Shahji or the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh [RSS]. But once he has taken a decision, the RSS will definitely be informed first, then the rest will be brought into the loop. This was the style we noticed at the time of demonetisation, or even when he selected Yogiji [Adityanath] for Uttar Pradesh. So, this time too we expect something as unpredictable,” said a senior BJP leader who is in the know of things.

If this leader is to be believed, Modi’s first choice for the President’s post is Infosys founder and chairman N.R. Narayana Murthy, followed by Ratan Tata, and Narayana Murthy’s wife, Sudha Murthy, who is a well-known philanthropist in her own right. Former Army Chief Gen. (retd) V.P. Malik also figures in the list but is unlikely to be considered because, according to this leader, “Modiji will not select someone who has saluted the Prime Minister.”

Narayana Murthy, says this leader, is a strong possibility because, as with every other choice, the Prime Minister wants to send a message to the world. “Narayana Murthy is one person who can be regarded as the founding father of India’s IT industry, which has impressed the world for almost a decade now. He has not only created lakhs of jobs, but given the Indian IT industry a leadership position in the world. Besides, he is not associated with any controversy or scandal, no corruption charges have ever been levelled against him, and he has no overt political affiliation. He is regarded highly all over the world and is known to be an upright, honest man who can be expected to uphold the sanctity of the Constitution and not be bowed down by any pressure.”

It should be mentioned that Narayana Murthy has been effusive in his praise for the Prime Minister and has exhorted people to support Modi in his endeavour to take India forward, though no positive result can be seen on the ground yet.

According to BJP insiders, Ratan Tata is also a strong possibility, but his chances are a little less than Murthy’s because of his run-ins with the BJP during the National Democratic Alliance’s (NDA) previous tenure. “But those disagreements are a thing of the past now. He is no longer associated with the business, has a clean image and commands respect all over the world. If for some reason Murthy falls behind, then Ratan Tata is a strong possibility,” a party insider said. According to senior BJP leaders, the reasoning behind these choices is that India has not given the business world its due so far, despite the fact that it has contributed tremendously to nation-building by creating jobs and through infrastructure-building. “It [recognising Indian businessmen] is long overdue,” said a BJP leader.

As for the required numbers in Parliament, the NDA already has enough for a simple majority, with help from parties like the Telugu Desam Party and the YSR Congress. Additional votes are expected to come from the Janata Dal (U) and the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), besides the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). The JDU’s support is almost in the bag after Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s lunch meeting with the Prime Minister on May 27. This was significant because he had skipped a meeting of opposition parties convened by Congress president Sonia Gandhi on May 26. Navin Patnaik of the BJD might have reservations about siding with the BJP, but he is expected to accept a candidate like Murthy or Tata because the Odisha Chief Minister too likes to be seen as being progressive and development-oriented.

According to the BJP’s calculations, the AIADMK is now almost sure to back the NDA, despite its “blow hot, blow cold” relation with the BJP lately, because of the presence of its rival Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) at the meeting convened by Sonia Gandhi. “Moreover, if Murthy is the candidate, they will be happy to back somebody from south India,” said the senior BJP leader.

Interestingly, senior BJP leaders firmly ruled out a second term for President Pranab Mukherjee. They also denied rumours that Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan or the RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat could be their nominee. As for Sumitra Mahajan, nominating her would lead to an unnecessary and avoidable Lok Sabha byelection. As for Mohan Bhagwat becoming the President, BJP leaders baulk at the idea. “Please don’t trivialise the RSS chief’s post, which is even bigger than the President’s. As RSS chief, Mohan Bhagwat can any day drive into Rashtrapti Bhavan for a cup of tea with the President. He is above all this.”

BJP leaders hope that the process for the selection of the presidential nominee will begin after the Prime Minister returns from his European tour on June 4.

The opposition’s efforts to have its voice heard in the process of selection has become tremulous after it became obvious that cracks had developed within their ranks with Nitish Kumar breaking away. At the 17-party luncheon meeting on May 26, opposition leaders, who were earlier making tall claims of taking the BJP head-on in the presidential election, preferred to let the government build a consensus and decided to wait and watch instead of proposing candidates. But the coming together of 17 parties, including arch rivals Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party from Uttar Pradesh and Trinamool Congress and Communist Party of India (Marxist) from West Bengal, is significant because it could just be the beginning of the Mahagathbandhan (grand alliance) they have been talking about to check the BJP’s growth before the 2019 Lok Sabha election. But, for now, the Prime Minister is set to make yet another daring and unpredictable decision.

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