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Pranab set for Raisina Hill

The run-up to the presidential polls is proving to be smooth affair this time unlike an earlier occasion when they were marked by heart-burning and recriminations as when the ambitions of vice-president Krishan Kant and Maharashtra governor P C Alexander were not fulfilled. The reasons for this pleasant development are two. One is that the ruling Congress has found it easy to agree on two names – those of vice-president Hamid Ansari and finance minister Pranab Mukherjee. The other is that the opposition BJP has shot itself in the foot.

It is not difficult to understand why the BJP hobbled itself. As soon as the two 'official' names were floated, the party was assailed by its familiar paranoia: a reflexive anti-Muslim and anti-Congress mindset. While Sushma Swaraj thought that the personable Ansari lacked in stature, the party could not be find any generosity in its heart to back Mukherjee in a non-partisan spirit although L K Advani had showered handsome praise on the finance minister for acting as the government’s helmsman in Manmohan Singh’s absence.

The fatuity of the charge against Ansari is obvious, especially when if anyone could have lacked stature for the high post, it was the present incumbent, Pratibha Patil. When she was chosen by the Congress five years ago, the question that was asked was 'Pratibha who?', for she was virtually unknown outside Maharashtra. Since then, few can say that her stature has improved. Mercifully, she hasn’t become involved in a major scandal during her tenure apart from trying to grab land for herself and her family. At the end of the day, therefore, India’s first woman president has been something of a disappointment.

The BJP’s first woman leader of the Lok Sabha is also proving to be a disappointment, as her interventions in the presidential stakes show. Inside the party, this means that Sushma Swaraj’s position has slid below that of her rival in the organization, Arun Jaitley, the BJP’s leader in the Rajya Sabha. In the BJP’s internal line-up, the list can now said to include Jaitley, Advani and Narendra Modi though not necessarily in that order.

Where the presidential contest is concerned, it is obvious that the Congress would have preferred Ansari as a frontrunner, for his elevation would have reaffirmed the party’s pro-Muslim credentials – a longstanding asset which it lost in the wake of the Babri masjid demolition. With Ansari as the president, the party could have approached the 2014 general election with considerable confidence. It could have pointed out how successive Muslim leaders from the distinguished Zakir Hussain to the unprepossessing Mohammed Hidayatullah – Indira Gandhi’s 'poodle' during the Emergency – and then the erudite Ansari had held the high office under its aegis.

For a while, it seemed that Mamata Banerjee would upset the apple cart, as is her habit. Her grouse against Ansari apparently is his pro-Left sympathies, which turns him into a dushtu lok or bad man, to quote from the cartoon on her based on a Satyajit Ray film which angered her. But, she may have relented because of the realisation that her scuttling of Ansari’s prospects will not endear her to her Muslim supporters in West Bengal. Considering that she keeps them in tow via her indifference towards Taslima Nasreen’s aspirations, it is clear enough that she would not have gone out of her way to oppose Ansari.

In any event, she did not have to because there was an option in Mukherjee’s candidature. There is little doubt that if Mukherjee becomes the country’s first Bengali president, Mamata will claim it as an achievement of her own although the relations between her and her former senior in the Congress is a fraught one. But, Mukherjee’s elevation has implications outside of the Congress-Trinamool Congress ties. If the Congress’s focus on Ansari’s ascent relates to the Muslim question, Mukherjee will be seen to have brought a sense of dignity to the presidential position at a time of the Congress’s decline when there is every possibility that it will run an even weaker coalition in 2014 under an inexperienced Rahul Gandhi.

This period of uncertainty is the time when Mukherjee’s position in the Rashtrapati Bhavan will be of inestimable value to the Congress because of his cool constitutional head and powers of mediation. Interestingly, the Congress’s earlier fears that its recent electoral failures in UP, Punjab, Goa and elsewhere will weaken its position vis-à-vis the allies in relation to the presidential polls have not materialized. Curiously, the Congress is now seen to be more in charge than when it was cowering under the barrage of scams. The reason of this turnaround is that the BJP has virtually withdrawn from the hunt, and that regional parties like the Samajwadi Party, the BSP, the RJD, the DMK, the AIADMK, the Telugu Desam and the BJD are playing a low-key role – the latter because of its preoccupation with the Maoists. The Congress may well say, therefore, 'thank God for small mercies'.
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