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A lesson in low politics of high intrigue

Author: Kanchan Gupta
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: June 17, 2012
URL: http://www.dailypioneer.com/columnists/item/51815-a-lesson-in-low-politics-of-high-intrigue.html

The Congress is set to win the presidential election. But it will be a pyrrhic victory at best. Meanwhile, Pranab babu won’t have to carry the can for UPA’s monumental follies

While Delhi’s lazy, sanctimonious, all-knowing commentariat that hogs space in newspapers and time on news television debates (which increasingly appear as spurious as WWF matches) has been busy this past week pontificating on ‘politicking’ over the high office of the Head of State, it required the New York Times to point out that, “Politicking began with India’s very first President”. In a finely crafted article that appeared in the India Ink section of the paper’s global edition, Samanth Subramaniam has retold the story of the (in)famous spat between Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and Babu Rajendra Prasad over who should succeed C Rajagopalachari as the first President to occupy the Rashtrapati Bhavan.

Nehru was keen that Rajaji, then Governor-General of India, should continue as President of the Republic. Nehru had a particular aversion to Prasad who wore his religion on his sleeve and refused to repudiate tradition. Patel wanted Prasad to take over because he wasn’t enamoured of Rajaji. On his part, Prasad, who had presided over the Constituent Assembly, was not only willing to take on the newly-created job but was stubborn in his belief that he deserved it more than anybody else. What followed was a furious exchange of letters written with pens dipped in acid.

In one of his letters to Nehru during those days, Patel wrote, “(The atmosphere) stinks in my nostrils and I wonder to what depths of intrigues and manoeuvrings we have lowered ourselves.” In the end, Patel had his way, Prasad became the President and Nehru retreated to fight another day (the relationship between the President and his Prime Minister was prickly at the best of times and openly hostile otherwise). More than six decades later, Patel’s scathing castigation rings as true today as it did then. We have once again been witness to low politics of high intrigue over the nomination of potential successors to the current incumbent on Raisina Hill, Ms Pratibha Patil.

Nor have the 12 Presidents we have had till now been above politicking after securing their tenancy of Rashtrapati Bhavan, barring possibly Zakir Hussain and Mr APJ Abdul Kalam. For all his lofty detachment and the studied demeanour of a scholar-philosopher, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan had the mind of an astute politician. We have also had Heads of State like Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed who came to be known as a ‘rubber stamp’ President and Zail Singh who once declared he would be happy to sweep the floor if Mrs Indira Gandhi were to ask him to do so. KR Narayanan spent his time conspiring against the NDA Government, and the less said about Ms Patil’s integrity quotient the better.

Seen against this backdrop of politicking over selecting candidates for the highest constitutional office of the land and their eventual election by Members of Parliament and State Legislatures, the theatre of the absurd of this past week would surprise only the naïve and the uninitiated. If there was a departure from the past, it was in the spectacle of an ally of the Congress leading the charge against the party, only to stumble and fall even before battle had commenced.

It still remains a mystery as to why Trinamool Congress’s supreme leader and West Bengal’s Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee went out on a limb to try and block the nomination of Mr Pranab Mukherjee as the UPA’s candidate for the presidential election (whether there will be a contest, at least one worth its name, is anybody’s guess). Questions can be asked but they shall never be answered convincingly. Was Ms Banerjee trying to push a hard bargain to secure the best possible financial package for West Bengal? Was she carried away by her own rhetoric? Was she testing the treacherous waters of national politics? Was she trying to emerge as the fulcrum of a new alliance of regional parties? Or was it simply her belligerence that got the better of her intelligence?

It shall also remain a mystery as to how and why the Prime Minister’s name was included in the list of potential candidates jointly announced by Ms Banerjee and Mr Mulayam Singh Yadav who later disowned having done anything like that, although it was shown on live television. Was it a trial balloon? Who wanted it floated? Why didn’t the Congress officially react till the following day by when the Prime Minister was denuded of whatever little prestige and authority he could still boast of?

She may be impetuous but Ms Banerjee is not un-intelligent. She should have known better than to trust Mr Yadav and believe that he would stand by his publicly stated choice of potential candidates — Mr Kalam, Mr Manmohan Singh and Mr Somanth Chatterjee, though not necessarily in that order as he clarified at the Press conference which he addressed with Ms Banerjee. Mr Yadav has turned coat in the past (recall the Samajwadi Party bailing out the Congress during the tainted confidence vote of 2008) and is a pale shadow of the feisty heartland politician who not many years ago had poured water on Ms Sonia Gandhi’s soaring ambitions.

Times change, people change. Mr Yadav is now more amenable to doing the Congress’s bidding, if not for the Rs 97,000 crore cheque that his son needs to fulfil the Samajwadi Party’s election promises (which is not to be confused with the economic development of Uttar Pradesh) then for keeping the CBI from reopening the case in which he has been accused of acquiring assets disproportionate to his known sources of income. It is astonishing that Ms Banerjee, who is not a novice in politics, chose to bank on a morally bankrupt politician. Having more than burned her fingers, she will now hopefully get back to minding the affairs of West Bengal. They do need minding.

Any prediction on how politics will pan out in the coming days can at best be idle speculation. There are no full stops in politics; there are at best commas and semicolons that can be easily erased or circumnavigated. Victory in the presidential election, which appears a foregone conclusion as Mr Mukherjee does enjoy support across parties and alliances, would be no more than pyrrhic for a hobbled Congress which stares into a bleak and dark future. For evidence, look at the results of the by-elections: In most places Congress candidates have lost their deposit. Popular disquiet is not limited to Andhra Pradesh alone; rare if any is the State where the Congress does not invite anger and ridicule.

Mr Mukherjee has been singularly lucky in his long political career. It’s a thankless job to try and shore up a tanking economy, keep a sinking rupee afloat, boost growth in the absence of positive indices, bridge the yawning fiscal deficit and hold the price line. A paralysed Government cannot deliver on the economic front and the Finance Minister gets to carry the can. Mr Mukherjee is no doubt delighted about shifting residence to Rashtrapati Bhavan later this summer. Who wouldn’t be? And it can be said without fear of contradiction that he is thrilled he won’t be the person left carrying the can for the follies of a Government that has long ceased to govern.

- (The author is a political commentator who works for a news portal.)
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