For once, the Congress seems to have
been able to get its act together on the presidential poll with
its two possible candidates, Hamid Ansari and Pranab Mukherjee,
running ahead of the rest of the pack.
However, the party itself can hardly be credited with this
achievement. Instead, it is really a gift of the Bharatiya Janata
Party (BJP) and, more particularly, of its leader in the Lok Sabha,
Sushma Swaraj, whose gaffes have landed the principal opposition
party in a mess.
Apart from confirming how the BJP's leadership tangle remains
unresolved, what the episode underlined was the party's warped
ideas on the subject of the next president. When Swaraj
peremptorily and unilaterally ruled out the question of support
for Ansari and Mukherjee, she was acting in accordance with the
BJP's conditioned reflexes of anti-Muslim and anti-Congress
Her charge that the vice president lacked stature was laughable,
especially in the context of the lacklustre background of the
present president, Pratibha Patil, whose elevation five years ago
had surprised and amused the political world since many outside
Maharashtra didn't even know who she was. "Pratibha who?" was the
question which was asked. Since then, her tenure - though
thankfully devoid of major controversies - has hardly enhanced her
stature. India's first woman president, therefore, will go down in
history as something of a disappointment.
Swaraj's assertion, therefore, that the far more distinguished
Ansari lacked stature was odd, to say the least. Her objection
appeared to have been based on the fact, therefore, that Ansari
was a Muslim and, for the BJP, to straightaway endorse a Muslim
candidate would go against the party's grain.
Since she couldn't state the obvious, she took a roundabout way of
restating the party's "secularism" by naming former president
A.P.J. Abdul Kalam as a nominee. Kalam, of course, has enjoyed the
BJP's support in the past if only because he shares some of the
party's views of Indian history. He is also known for his
scientific achievements and personal integrity. But, having
already been president, it will be strange to elevate him to the
post again, especially when he is now 81. What the suggestion
showed, therefore, was the BJP's bankruptcy of ideas and also how
bare was its cupboard of possible Muslim candidates. And this, in
the world's second largest Muslim country.
It will be unfair to deny that the Congress' calculations in
choosing Ansari have nothing to do with the Muslim angle. But it
acts with long practised sophistication in these matters, born of
years of accommodating Muslim dignitaries inside and outside the
organisation. So from the distinguished academic Zakir Hussain to
the unprepossessing Mohammed Hidayatullah, to Ansari, the Congress
has nurtured individuals of varying potential as followers and
If Ansari stumbles at the last hurdle, it will be due to the
habitually contrarian Mamata Banerjee, who is totting up one by
one her unending opposition to the Congress' initiatives. In
Ansari's case, it is his supposed friendliness towards the
Marxists which is unacceptable to the West Bengal chief minister.
If there was no other alternative, she would have wondered about
the impact of her opposition to Ansari on her Muslim base in the
But, fortunately for her, there is an alternative in Mukherjee,
who can become the country's first Bengali president if Mamata
plumps for him. And, for Mamata, it will be something for which
she can claim credit back home where little is going right for her
at the moment.
For the Congress, it is a Hobson's choice. The party will dearly
love to install Ansari with the next general election two years
away when his elevation will enable it to mobilise Muslim support.
The move will also enable it to keep some parties of the Hindi
belt on its side - the Samajwadi Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP),
the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), and others who always wear their
"secularism" on their sleeves. But the Congress is not sure
whether Mukherjee's wider acceptability - he can expect the BJP's
support as well - makes him a safer bet.
In these turbulent political times, when the Congress' credibility
is low and when it may have to run an even weaker coalition
government in 2014, Mukherjee's sharp political mind, his grasp of
constitutional niceties and skills as a mediator will be of as
much value inside Rashtrapati Bhavan as outside. It will also be
in the fitness of things that when the young prince ascends to the
throne, the old family loyalist will be there behind the scenes
with his advice and consent.
Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be
reached at email@example.com