On present reckoning there is greater likelihood of the next President emerging from an electoral contest rather than a national consensus. Emerging signs indicate that. Earlier it might be recalled that Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha Mrs. Sushma Swaraj had indicated that neither Mr. Pranab Mukherjee nor Mr. Hamid Ansari would be acceptable to the BJP as President. The result of that statement was to divide the NDA vote. The BJP’s key alliance partner, the JDU, objected to a unilateral decision by the BJP. Mrs. Swaraj’s diminution of Mr. Ansari’s political “stature” also attracted flak. The BJP had to backtrack by issuing clarifications.
Things have changed since then. Last Monday senior BJP leader Mr. Yashwant Sinha lauded Mr. Pranab Mukherjee in parliament. Mr. Sinha told the Finance Minister that he might soon occupy Rashtrapati Bhawan instead of parliament. He went on to add that Mr. Mukherjee would make a very good President. The House clapped and there was a thumping of desks. Mr. Sinha was merely adding the icing on the cake after an unprecedented media blitz promoting Mr. Mukherjee as the President. For the first time has there been such fierce media campaigning during a presidential election. For the first time has the election campaign of a presidential candidate involved electoral funding. There would be no dearth of businessmen funding the poll campaign of the Finance Minister to become the next President. But in all these developments there is a serious catch.
The swelling support for Mr. Mukherjee ably highlighted and promoted by the media is confined to the ranks of all non-Congress parties. Congress members themselves have if anything discouraged the notion of Mr. Mukherjee becoming President. They tactfully describe him as being too valuable in government to be spared. Congress leaders after all have to cock a sharp eye at 10 Janpath to get clearance for supporting Mr. Mukherjee. But Mrs. Sonia Gandhi herself seems reluctant to give the green signal. And the mounting support for Mr. Mukherjee within the opposition makes her reluctance to nominate Mr. Mukherjee all the more embarrassing. Mr. Yashwant Sinha as a canny politician knows this. Most likely he praised Mr. Mukherjee not so much to support him as to embarrass Mrs. Sonia Gandhi. In all fairness Mr. Mukherjee himself has never opened his mouth to utter anything inappropriate. His conduct has been exemplary. He has merely to simper and appear modest which he can do with considerable proficiency.
The situation gets further complicated. It is common knowledge that the Ambani clan has excellent relations with both Mr. Mukherjee and Mrs. Gandhi. If a rift widens between both leaders in the Presidential stakes, which side would the Ambanis choose? My guess is that in the event they will plump for Mrs. Gandhi. The sentiment for Mr. Mukherjee whose cordiality with the Ambanis dates back to the late Dhirubhai Ambani is unlikely to overcome the compelling financial constraints presently confronting Reliance Industries. Mr. Mukesh Ambani owes a whopping amount to the government for arrears emanating from the Krishna-Godavari gas project. That renders the success of the Rafale deal in which Reliance has become the Indian partner to manufacture the Rafale fighter aircraft all the more crucial. Although Reliance has already signed the contract with Dassault as its Indian partner for Rafale, the deal if it comes through will do so only because of the critical support given to it by Mrs. Sonia Gandhi. Therefore my guess about Reliance is: “Hail Mrs. Gandhi, Goodbye Mr. Mukherjee!”
However, a further question arises. Would Mr. Mukherjee dare confront the Mrs. Gandhi-Reliance combine? On past reckoning the question would not have arisen. However Mr. Mukherjee is at the fag end of his career. He has nothing to look forward to by continuing in office till the next general election. His only chance for what he would reasonably consider to be well deserved reward for all his services rendered to the party is the next Presidency. It is a question of do or die for him. So, would he let old ties prevail or take the plunge by even rupturing relations with past and trusted allies? My guess is that he will take the plunge. If the Congress nominates a different candidate for President and the combined opposition backs Mr. Mukherjee we might witness a repeat of the polarizing election that brought President VV Giri to office. On Wednesday Mrs. Gandhi warned her party men against indiscipline. But no Congress member has dared shown indiscipline. Then why the warning? Obviously Mrs. Gandhi was pre-empting a possible future revolt by supporters of Mr. Mukherjee.