Indian Decade

Bengal Tiger for President?

With fears of a Congress drubbing at the next election, Sonia Gandhi may opt for Pranab Mukherjee as president.

Congress President Sonia Gandhi needs to ensure that her party, despite not holding a majority in the country’s parliament, can repeat its 2007 feat of sending a reliable loyalist to the Presidential Palace (the former Viceregal Palace) atop Delhi’s Raisina Hill.

Within her party, the expectation has been that the Congress tally will fall substantially at the next parliament from the 200-plus seats it now has. This calculation is at the core of the Congress Party’s anxiety to have its own man as the next president of India. Should the party tally sink to 150 or even 125 seats, Sonia Gandhi wants to (1) keep the BJP from any role in governance and (2) ensure that the lead player in any future ruling coalition would continue to be her party. Hence her outreach to the Left parties and to regional players that earlier were spurned or ignored by her.

Since 2004, the Congress Party has become accustomed to the benefits of power, both in terms of contributions to the party treasury as well as through access to information from the intelligence agencies and persuasive and coercive wings of the state such as the Central Bureau of Investigation and the Enforcement Directorate. Even if the Congress Party tally at the next general elections is too low to permit Gandhi’s son Rahul to assume office as prime minister, she wants to ensure a post-poll setup that wouldn’t let the BJP harass her family.

The inclusion of her most persistent critic, Subramanian Swamy, into the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance and the steady rise in prominence of Sonia-baiter and Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi has set off alarm bells within 10 Janpath (the Sonia residence). Both are known to differ with the A. B. Vajpayee-L. K. Advani line of a softer policy towards Sonia Gandhi and her family. Indeed, the BJP-ruled government went out of its way during 1998-2004 to accommodate the Congress president.

The best-case scenario for the Congress Party would be a repeat of the 2009 success and holding on to most of its current seats. This would ensure that the Congress Party be able to anoint Rahul Gandhi as the new premier, an outcome that would be difficult should the party tally to drop below 150 seats in the 542-member lower house of parliament. While a few veterans, including Congress Party General Secretary Digvijay Singh, Ministers Jairam Ramesh and Salman Khurshid and party spokesperson Manish Tewari would likely be included in a Rahul-led council of ministers, most from the Congress Party would be new faces, with the present ministers of state from the Rahul brigade such as Milind Deora and Jitin Prasada being awarded Cabinet rank, together with other new entrants.

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Both Sonia and Rahul prize loyalty above other virtues, and each of the names mentioned have demonstrated this quality over the past seven years. Although Defense Minister A.K. Antony was earlier expected to figure on this list, the controversy over the allegedly premature retirement of Gen. V. K. Singh has made the Kerala leader unviable.

Although Vice President Hamid Ansari is the favorite of 10 Janpath to replace the forgettable Pratibha Patil in the Presidential Palace, the expectation that political storm clouds may lie ahead is shifting preferences towards a seasoned political warhorse rather than a former diplomat such as Ansari. Sonia Gandhi’s first choice was said to be Shivraj Patil, the former home minister. But his lack of support even (or especially) from the Maharashtra contingent has made his candidacy impossible. The choice is now veering between External Affairs Minister S. M. Krishna and Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, with the Bengal leader having the edge over the Karnataka strongman because of his much wider support base within the non-Congress parties. This is compensating for the fact that Sonia Gandhi herself would prefer Krishna to Mukherjee, a leader
who sometimes exhibits an independence of mind not common within the Congress Party.

Given the delicate political maneuvers that would be needed to keep out the BJP in a situation where the Congress tally gets reduced to about 125 seats, the view in 10 Janpath is that only a politician such as Krishna or Antony would have the savvy and the commitment to the party and its ruling family that is needed to steer the political situation in a way which maintains a post-2004 leading role of the Congress Party.

While consistent in upholding the interests of the Congress Party and in fulfilling any of the tasks which 10 Janpath expects him to perform, Mukherjee has built up durable friendships across the party spectrum over the past four decades. He’s about the only political leader who can carry on with both the Left as well as his bête noire, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, and his personal relationships with the top rung of the opposition BJP is excellent.

At the same time, his lack of fluency in Hindi has paradoxically become an advantage, in that he is therefore a zero regional threat to Mulayam Singh Yadav, Laloo Yadav, Nitish Kumar and Mayawati – all powerful Hindi-belt politicians. In recent weeks, the informal consultations done by the Congress leadership with senior leaders of other parties have revealed the depth of the support that Mukherjee has within both the UPA as well as supporting parties such as the SP and the BSP, besides the Left. Given the Congress Party’s need to parley its future Lok Sabha strength into the driver’s seat in a future dispensation, the odds are rising that Mukherjee, the self-effacing but formidably political Bengal tiger, will become India’s next head of state. That is, if Sonia Gandhi can get over her distaste for a man who occasionally says no to the Nehrus.