NEW DELHI: A Congress nominee, either finance minister Pranab Mukherjee or Vice-President Hamid Ansari, seems set to be elected President, with all indications suggesting that the BJP-led opposition may not be able to put up a credible fight in the polls to determine who should replace Pratibha Patil.
Although BJP scrambled to contain the damage from the “unilateral” declaration to oppose any Congress candidate and party chief Nitin Gadkari announced that he would soon call a meeting of the NDA to hash out a common posture, the opposition appears to have lost the initiative to Congress.
For one, there were doubts that Gadkari’s fence mending endeavour would appease the anger of JD(U) which on Tuesday had reacted angrily to Sushma Swaraj’s statement virtually declaring that it would now act independently of the BJP.
JD(U) leader Sharad Yadav said on Wednesday that the party would prefer widest possible consensus on the next President: a position contrary to the “no Congress nominee, please” that Swaraj articulated on Monday.
The reaction from JD(U)’s powerhouse of Bihar was even strident, with indications suggesting that CM Nitish Kumar could very well tilt towards Ansari even if BJP sticks to its position not to support a Congress candidate.
There was another happy augury for Congress. Samajwadi Party on Wednesday rubbished suggestions that it had decided to field its own candidate. Both UP chief minister Akhilesh Yadav and senior party functionary Ram Gopal Yadav denied that the party had mulled names like chief election commissioner S Y Quraishi.
Even more important, Ram Gopal said there was no possibility of Samajwadis coordinating, overtly or covertly, with the BJP over the presidential elections: a stance which deals a blow to the prospect of a grand anti-Congress alliance in the elections.
Also, in contrast to BJP’s ability to carry JD(U) along, Sonia Gandhi has handled her coalition business very well. Of the big UPA partners, DMK and NCP are already on board. Mamata Banerjee, who is supposed to meet the Congress chief over the next couple of days, is keeping her cards close to her chest. However, Nitish Kumar being favourably disposed towards a Congress candidate and SP’s refusal to join moves to thwart a Sonia choice shrinks her maneuver space.
Factor in Left’s public declaration that it is open to supporting the candidature of both Mukherjee and Ansari and Congress’s success begins to appear almost certain.
An anti-Congress combination which does not include SP, Trinamool and at least one more important regional player can not prevail in a contest even if BJP manages to knock together all others into a grouping.
Indeed, considering the despair in party circles in the aftermath of the UP rout in March and the fillip it gave to the prospect of SP and Trinamool becoming the rallying point for moves to harry Congress, the party seems to be having a rather smooth run.
However, what seems to be taking away from the quiet satisfaction among Congress managers is the fact that its trot towards the podium is also bringing the party face to face with some nettlesome questions which it would have wished to avoid. To begin with, choosing between Mukherjee and Ansari will be a tough proposition; largely because tied in is the complex issue of what do you do with the veteran finance minister.
Ansari is a safe choice for an array of reasons; including the fact that he is more suitable to those who see the coming presidential polls as an opportunity to flag their concern for minorities. Left, which sponsored his candidature for vice-president five years ago, will not shrink this time either, even if it has to vote alongside Trinamool. He can be trusted to safeguard Congress’s interests.
Mukherjee cannot help others burnish their “secular” credentials. Still, he enjoys even higher acceptability across the political spectrum. Neither SP nor Left is expected to frown at his name. Nitish Kumar on Tuesday put on record his admiration for Congress’s warhorse. In fact, if anyone can hope to emerge as the consensus choice in the bitterly fractious political class, it is him, although this may not necessarily be seen as an asset by all in Congress.
Ansari’ s elevation is sure to leave Mukherjee, who was proposed for the post by the Left five years ago but was not spared by Congress, dejected. Having been passed over for prime ministership, the finance minister may not wish to soldier on just as an “equal” any more. He has indicated that he may not contest the 2014 polls, and copious praise for his troubleshooting capabilities or cruciality for UPA may not mollify him any more.
Although this is recognized by his colleagues, they are hobbled by the competing concern: that the departure of the wise man for Rashtrapati Bhawan will render the government, already reeling from acute political deficit, even more hamstrung in the lead-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. This has been an old worry, but has acquired more serious proportion because of the growing feeling in Congress that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh could be showing signs of fatigue.
Singh has tried to remain engaged with Sonia’s project, but has failed to scotch the perception that two tenures may have begun to sap his energy. Many in government acknowledge that the absence of Mukherjee may compound matters.
The challenge of reconciling the objectives is real, but Congress may find it difficult to put off some of the hard choices any more.