The Office of the President of India is not a reward bestowed upon an eminent person for a lifetime of services rendered to the nation or for any other factors.
It’s a serious constitutional office, the highest office of the land.
I wish to submit that by withdrawing himself as a candidate in the elections to this office in this turbulent climate, Dr. Kalam has done a disservice to the nation.
He would have been a serious challenger to the canny politician Pranab Mukherjee and by his action, he becomes an accomplice to the smooth and dangerous ascendancy of Mr. Mukherjee to this key office.
The country is surely bigger than Dr. Kalam.
Not a Routine Matter
No serious observer of politics in India will look upon the choice of Pranab Mukherjee as its candidate by the Congress Party as anything but a cynical and calculated as well as canny move by the party to position its man in the key role of President in advance of the likely fractured mandate of 2014.
Never before in the history of elections to the office of the President have we seen a figure as powerful as Pranab Mukherjee being a candidate.
What’s the reason and logic behind this move which will require many others pieces to be repositioned as well on the chessboard of Congress and UPA politics?
If the post of President was merely a constitutional one, the Congress Party could have nominated any one of the many luminaries available.
To compare the role and career of Pranab Mukherjee to that of K. R. Narayanan or R. Venkataraman would be to overlook obvious differences in scale in the roles played by those former presidents in the running of those governments and the role played by Mr. Mukherjee in the running of the present government.
We have lost count of the number of times Pranabda has been called upon to play the role of the crisis manager in Kolkata and in Chennai. He heads countless Groups of Ministers in the Cabinet. He officiates as the Prime Minister in Cabinet meetings when protocol demands it in the absence of the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
He is the de-facto and de-jure proverbial no. 2 man in the present government which is a complex coalition with a weak prime minister who is bereft of a grassroots political base himself. Who is kidding themselves that Indira Gandhi ever would have allowed to weaken herself to SUCH an extent by letting someone else in her government have THIS much power?
So no. the candidature of Mr. Mukherjee is not a routine affair from any perspective.
Calculations and Compulsions
Why doesn’t a Bengali want to see another Bengali rise to the highest office? Is it mere your garden variety jealousy and the legendary crab-pulling-down-another-crab nature of Indians at work? Mamata Banerjee is not a meteor who has suddenly appeared across the political firmament of India. She has struggled for 30 years sometimes putting her life in some threat to reach where she has.
I think she understands that Pranab Mukherjee has been a Congressman for 40 years who has ensured him viability by being faithful to The Family. He is not going to suddenly forego his allegiances after four decades. Not unless he develops amnesia or Alzheimer’s.
As the finance minister, he must have acquired an insight into many dirty financial secrets of the top political and business leaders and this can come in handy at the appropriate time. A threat of a threat in the deft hand of a political manager like Mr. Mukherjee is as powerful in political battles as nuclear weapons are in real and strategic ones.
Meanwhile the strong man of Uttar Pradesh did a U-turn within 24 hours after joining hands with Mamata Banerjee. Mulayam Singh Yadav has returned to power in UP after the recent state elections after being in the wilderness for the last five years. He fought the Congress in the state elections and now is an ally with the Congress in the Center. But he won’t join the government because that would be inconvenient as he wishes to maintain the pretence that he is opposed to the Congress. In the national elections in 2014, the SP will most likely again battle the Congress in UP and in the world-according-to-Mulayam, Congress will fare as poorly as it did in the assembly elections and SP will perform spectacularly. This is also what is likely to happen in the real world.
Mr. Mulayam Singh doesn’t belong to a national party. Which is not to say that he doesn’t have prime ministerial ambitions like Mr. Narendra Modi.
However, Mulayam Singh’s likely path to the prime ministership is necessarily different from the path of a Narendra Modi. While Mr. Modi stresses his credentials as an able administer with an impeccable record of development in Gujarat, that is hardly going to be anyone’s record with respect to Uttar Pradesh.
The only other state level politician who has a strong record of development going for him is Nitish Kumar in the perennially struggling state of Bihar. The man who’s doing something truly out of the ordinary for UP is probably Bill Gates and he isn’t in the race to be the prime minister of India.
Mulayam Singh’s sole focus is to get as many seats as possible in UP and then see where the other chips fall and then take things forward from there. For now, he is happy to support anyone Congress nominates as the President as that suits him.
Fighting Over A Lottery Ticket
The NDA meanwhile presents a peculiar picture of discontent. They’re like a bunch of friends who have pulled together money to buy a bunch of lottery tickets and now they have somehow sensed that they’re going to WIN the lottery. So they’re fighting over who gets to have the winning lottery ticket. Meanwhile, the results of the lottery will only be announced two years from now, in 2014.
The story of the present government has been an unending succession of scams, overall weak economic performance and an inability to provide a progressive vision of a liberalizing government undertaking much needed and much delayed measures that will keep India on the much needed high growth trajectory.
So the NDA, or rather the BJP, sees a chance to return to power that it lost rather unexpectedly in 2004. And the infighting and jostling has begun to find the person most suited to lead India come 2014. Mr. Narendra Modi has not been coy in throwing his hat in the ring decisively. I think the resulting circus could very well have been avoided.
Admittedly, Dr. Kalam has not spent the last 30 years in the muddy waters of Indian politics. But the nuclear tests of 1998 put him unexpectedly in the spotlight. He has conducted himself admirably and acquired many admirers deservedly. The youth of India looks upon him as an inspirational figure. I don’t know how many young people have been actually persuaded to lead a live of service to the nation instead of being solely devoted to rising up some sort of a ladder – corporate or otherwise.
When he was asked to take on the challenges of the Presidency of India in 2002, he didn’t hesitate. The political scenario then prevalent assured a smooth passage for himself.
In 2012, things are different. The path is more perilous. But he was not entirely disinclined to run for office. He declined ultimately in light of the prevailing scenario.
I think that’s not fair. Dr. Kalam is probably the only name which can bring the NDA and many non-Congress, non-NDA parties together. His candidature might even persuade some UPA constituents to take a hard look at MR. Mukherjee’s candidature.
Mr. Mukherjee might still win with the support of the opportunistic SP but it is not a shame to lose when you’re trying to do the right thing.
With Dr. Kalam out, the route to Rashtrapati Bhawan is clear for Pranab Mukherjee.
The next couple of years will not see much happening. The government will hobble along. The elections of 2014 will come around and the result will be mixed mandate with the only unknown being the health of Sonia Gandhi.
The Congress might still come out of those elections as the single largest party though with lesser number of seats than it has today. That will surely persuade it to claim that it had the mandate from the people. And the BJP will claim that the present government doesn’t have a mandate if it got less votes than the last time. In such a scenario, the role of the President becomes crucial as he has discretion in regards to whom to invite first to form the government.
I believe the Congress will resort to massive wheeling and dealing – or horse trading, whatever other terminology you might wish to use – to ratchet up a working majority and ride past an initial confidence vote in Parliament.
Once it’s in government with the active connivance of a sitting president, it will be obviously difficult to dislodge it as the government has access to massive resources to devote to the task of survival. Narasimha Rao was a master of that art. Mr. Mukherjee is continuing that tradition. If elected as President, he will be continue to be an invaluable asset to the Congress Party as he is now.
Dr. Kalam would have been guilty of having known about the wrong turn that India might take and not doing anything about it.
In summary, Abdul Kalam is a true hero of this country. All the more reason why he can’t choose to play the role of the knight in shining armor. He has to roll up his sleeves and enter the wrestling arena, even the mud wrestling one.