On the morning of June 15, three yesteryear Congressmen trooped into 10 Janpath, the residence of Congress president Sonia Gandhi. Apparently, R.K. Dhawan, M.L. Fotedar and Satish Sharma were hurriedly summoned because Sonia wanted to know the exact circumstances under which Pranab Mukherjee left the Congress, and was later re-inducted into the party by her husband, Rajiv Gandhi, in the late 1980s. A meeting of the Congress core committee was urgently called later in the day. Around 5 p.m. Sonia told the media waiting outside her house that the Congress had nominated Mukherjee as its official candidate for the post of President of India.
The timing was ominous. The Congress had lost 15 of the 18 Assembly seats it held in a byelection in the key state of Andhra Pradesh. The economic situation could not have been worse, with credit rating agencies downgrading India's investment rating and the World Bank cautioning over its growth projections. The party desperately needed a chin-up move, like acting decisively on a key issue. Mukherjee, on whom powerful friends and crucial allies had already agreed, was the party's readymade solution.
But behind the brocade curtains and airbrushed photo ops that followed lay a tale of “deals, counter-deals, bargains, counter bargains and double-crossings,” said Pinaki Misra, MP, of the Biju Janata Dal. The BJD's Naveen Patnaik and the AIADMK's J. Jayalalithaa were the first to officially name a presidential candidate when they jointly suggested former Lok Sabha Speaker Purno Agitok Sangma. “Patnaik named our party candidate in the most transparent and considered manner. Sangma is an eminent tribal, Christian minority candidate representing the northeast, and we have stuck steadfastly to our decision,” said Misra.
The Congress's official announcement, on the other hand, came three days after the Election Commission announced nomination dates, and after more than two months of protracted dithering over Mukherjee's name. It, in turn, triggered widespread speculation over the crucial issues of Mukherjee's replacement as the party's top batsman in Parliament and out of it, the selection of a new finance minister, the direction of economic reforms and the hectic regional realignments and their possible impact on the chances of the United Progressive Alliance in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. Indeed, a presidential election had rarely threatened to rearrange the political and economic contours of the ruling party, the ruling coalition, the government, and the opposition party to this extent.
“Pranab Mukherjee is the Congress's presidential candidate not by choice, but by compulsion,” said Shivanand Tiwari, spokesperson for the Janata Dal (U). “His party high command is unsure of what he can do during his presidential stint, the reason why they kept a decision on him pending for several weeks. That makes him an ideal candidate for us to back, especially given his seniority and qualifications.”
A key member in the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance, the JD(U) was one of the first parties to go public on its keenness to support Mukherjee. The party, which triggered tremors within the NDA and rattled the BJP with its stand, stuck to it through the days, even as the BJP found itself in a confused state on whether to go for a contest or a consensus.
The BJP thought even a symbolic contest would assert its opposition to the Congress's refusal to seek a consensus on the choice for the President. In the context of the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, leaders such as L.K. Advani and Sushma Swaraj saw this as imperative. However, some other BJP leaders, like Yashwant Sinha, had prematurely welcomed Mukherjee's possible elevation some weeks ago in Parliament, pointing at the futility of a contest which appeared to be a surefire for Mukherjee.
On June 18, former President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam announced his decision not to contest, ostensibly after a call from DMK chief M. Karunanidhi, who was the first in the UPA to support Mukherjee's candidature in May. Kalam was spurned by Jayalalithaa, despite Advani's efforts to change her mind on Sangma, and his refusal to contest cleared the decks for a fight between Mukherjee and Sangma.
What seemed to have clinched it for Mukherjee was Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav's assertion that it was pressure from him that forced the Congress to name Mukherjee officially. By backing out from his highly publicised ‘pact' with Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee, he had led the Congress into a trap making it rely heavily on him for pushing through key bills in Parliament.
Banerjee and Mulayam had named Kalam, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and former Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee as their choice of presidential candidates. While this was seen as an attempt to humiliate the Congress and the CPI(M), Kalam's name was a threat to lean towards the NDA. In effect, it signalled fresh realignments in the political firmament among regional parties, with the Trinamool and the SP as the fulcrum, in the run-up to the Lok Sabha polls. But Mulayam took a U-turn.
There was another interesting angle to this development. On the day Banerjee and Mulayam went public with their pact, Reliance Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group chairman Anil Ambani visited Mulayam's Jantar Mantar Road residence. Mukherjee heads the empowered group of ministers on telecom, which decides on issues like the reserve price for 2G spectrum and spectrum usage charge. Apparently, Ambani, who has huge interests in telecom, wanted Mukherjee out of it by making him a presidential candidate.
“It stands to reason that now is when Ambani could ensure that Mukherjee is removed from his position of active authority, to make room for somebody who is more pro-reforms and can ensure things move, if necessary, by passing executive orders,” said a source. But it did not go the expected way as the Prime Minister's Office decided to let Mukherjee continue to be the finance minister till July 24.
Soon after her pact with Mulayam went sour, Banerjee launched a Facebook campaign for Kalam as President. It died quietly on June 19, forcing her to acknowledge that the whole thing hurt her a lot. But she had a Plan B to pressure the Congress, as she dared the party to withdraw from the West Bengal government. The Congress responded with caution. Said party general secretary Shakeel Ahmed: “Mamataji is an intrinsic part of the UPA and an ally. She was, is and will remain so.” Mukherjee, on his part, even called the West Bengal chief minister his “younger sister”, hoping that she would relent.
Banerjee, it seems, was told by her advisers that it was better to stay within the UPA and mount pressure on the government with the state's demands. The speculation that Trinamool's ministers in the UPA government had submitted their resignation to her was scotched by Sudip Bandyopadhyay, the Trinamool's leader in the Lok Sabha.
In the event of a Lok Sabha election, Banerjee expects to win up to 32 seats in West Bengal, 12 seats more than the Trinamool's current tally. With this in mind, she is believed to be working for a fresh realignment of parties from both the NDA and the UPA. However, she does not want to make the mistake that the CPI(M)'s Prakash Karat made in 2009, and would not pull out of the government unless she is certain that elections will follow. Also, alienating the Muslim vote bank is a key concern, which is one reason she is cautious about an alliance with the BJP.
Banerjee's complex political moves have left her arch rivals, the Left Front, in a tight bind. Having earlier indicated that they had no problems with Mukherjee, Left leaders were irked with the Congress delaying on naming a candidate. However, they did not have many options. They could not go with Sangma because the BJP decided to support him. Banerjee narrowed down the options for them by rejecting Mukherjee outrightly. “It is the government that makes policies and not the President,” said the CPI's D. Raja. At a meeting on June 21, the CPI(M) and the Forward Bloc decided to back Mukherjee, and the CPI and the RSP decided to abstain from voting.
Interestingly, in a bid to engineer his dream of a consensus or at least a super majority, Mukherjee called up Trinamool MPs individually seeking their support. This did not go down well with the Trinamool leadership, forcing party leader Derek O'Brien to suggest in a tweet that it was beneath the dignity of the office of President.
The Trinamool seems to have two clear options: abstain from voting or vote for the NDA candidate. But its MPs have a third option. Given that the President is elected through a secret ballot, some of them might vote for Pranabda.
As tensions simmered between the Trinamool and the Congress, so did the tensions between the BJP and the JD(U). Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar had clearly suggested that the JD(U) was ready to risk leaving the NDA when he said his party preferred a “secular” prime minister. It was widely seen as an attempt to preempt the possibility of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi becoming the NDA's prime ministerial candidate. The JD(U) was patently clear that it would vote for Mukherjee irrespective of the BJP's decision.
On June 19, Mukherjee called up Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray and his son Uddhav seeking support. In 2007, the Sena had shocked the NDA by supporting the UPA's presidential candidate Pratibha Patil, who was from Maharashtra.
The Congress is believed to have gone shopping in the ranks of the Shiromani Akali Dal, another NDA member, as well. Apparently, the SAD bargained to make Parkash Singh Badal Vice-President, but the deal did not materialise.
Caught completely off guard by the developments, a rattled BJP announced on June 20 that it would push for a contest, notwithstanding the possibility of losing. Once that indication came clearly, Janata Party leader Subramanian Swamy met Sangma and convinced him to quit the Nationalist Congress Party, of which he was a founder. On June 21, the BJP announced its support to Sangma.
Maharashtra's political circles, however, are abuzz with speculation that Sangma is in the race with the blessings of NCP chief Sharad Pawar. “I even expect Pawar to vote for Sangma in July,” said Swamy. According to an NCP leader, had the BJP not decided reactively, there would have been a contest. “Now, this is likely to be a symbolic, albeit politically potent, contest,” he said.
While winning or losing has by now become a technical detail, the real story, it seems, lies in the political signals that parties are using the presidential poll to send. The jostling has clearly begun for realignments in the race to the Lok Sabha polls in 2014.
with Rabi Banerjee