Rendezvous with Raisina: why everyone wants a friendly prez
The unusual political heat that the presidential election has generated this time around has made the country skip its silly season, a popular media jargon for high summer months when trivia makes headlines for the lack of interesting stuff. At the same time, it also exposed the soft belly of Indian politics.
The Congress holding its cards tightly to its chest kept many on tenterhooks, including Pranab Mukherjee whose amiability cuts across party lines. While there are never two opinions about Pranab-da’s troubleshooting skills, there is a general impression that he was not the first choice of the grand old party and that there exists a trust deficit between him and party president Sonia Gandhi.
How did his name come about then? Samajwadi Party supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav gave out the answer to this quite inadvertently. If he is to be believed, he rather forced the Congress to announce Mukherjee’s candidature. His theatrics with West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee was calculated to pre-empt any surprise from the Congress. And Yadav’s claims are not wholly unfounded. Sources in the Congress say that Lok Sabha speaker Meira Kumar and vice-president Hamid Ansari were asked to stay put in Delhi until the name of the party’s presidential candidate was finalised.
In a quick turn of events, however, Mamata was found to be expendable by the SP chief, a wrestler-turned-politician who assiduously cultivated his image as a man who honours his words — only to lose it in this silly summer. “Until a week back, Mulayam had been assuring us of his socialist credentials and said that he would not support the Congress candidate,” said a surprised senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader who interacted with him during the recently concluded budget session of parliament.
But then, politics is driven by its own set of ethics, where there are no permanent friends or enemies and where an ideology is often a convenient veneer to conceal realpolitik. The Yadav satrap chose to lose the long-held perception about him at the altar of this realpolitik. He is friends with an industrial conglomerate which is equally close to the prospective Rashtrapati. More importantly, the SP chief’s about-turn was influenced by the calculation that it would be advantageous to have a favourable president at the time of the 2014 general elections since the anticipation of a fractured mandate is gaining strength every day and much would rest at the discretion of the Rashtrapati Bhavan.
Why Nitish said what he said
A curious coincidence was Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar’s rant against Gujarat CM Narendra Modi and his party’s decision to support Mukherjee disregarding the wishes of the BJP. Nitish is no naïve to think about a future with the Congress. Yet, like the SP supremo, he finds it better to invest in future and have a favourable Rashtrapati. Given the crucial role that the Rashtrapati Bhavan plays in case of a fractured mandate, Kumar does not see any merit in going with the BJP and losing a favourable quarter.
Sources in the BJP say that Nitish Kumar’s decision is largely influenced by bureaucrat-turned-politician NK Singh who lobbied hard for Mukherjee. Given Singh’s proximity to the industrial conglomerate pitching for Mukherjee’s candidature, Kumar’s decision fits into a larger game plan. His anti-Modi rhetoric was incidentally a red herring to divert the attention from the JD(U)’s decision to vote for Mukherjee and take the heat off from the violence which spilled in the streets of Patna and Ara following the murder of Ranvir Sena chief Brahmeshwar Prasad Singh. Though the murder seemed to be the result of rivalries among gangs involving hardened criminals who worked on caste lines, the whole episode revived the old fear of a caste war and anarchy in the state.
However, with a single stroke, the anti-Modi rant, Nitish succeeded in consolidating his support base among the minority by reinforcing his secular credentials.
But this political posturing raises a larger question. Is the Bihar CM ready to rock the NDA boat? A mature politician that he is, Kumar knows it too well that the issue of Modi’s leadership is still not settled within the BJP and the Sangh Parivar. With Gujarat elections to be held at the end of the year, there is hardly any scope for Modi to be projected as the party’s undisputed leader till he wins the elections in the state. Given the complex internal dynamics within the Sangh Parivar which substantially weighs against Modi, the Gujarat strongman would have to negotiate a very tough and often insurmountable terrain in the national politics. Apparently, Kumar has deftly addressed his constituency and tried to set the political agenda for the BJP leadership which at present seems totally adrift and rudderless.
Virtue of nostalgic mythmaking
Of late, the BJP leaders have developed an uncanny habit of turning nostalgic on the slightest pretext. Former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the party’s greatest political mascot discovered so far, is invoked at the drop of a hat. “We need a leader like Vajpayee,” said Bihar deputy chief minister Sushil Kumar Modi almost echoing the voice of Kumar who urged the BJP to project an inclusive secular face devoid of “rough edges”.
In retrospect, was Vajpayee so adored as it is made out to be? Or is it because, as they say, politics is short and selective memory? In not so distant past, a larger-than-life Vajpayee was given short-shrift over Advani by the RSS while choosing leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha in 1991. In the wake of the Babri mosque demolition, Vajpayee again found himself at the receiving end when some senior party leaders asked him to resign for expressing his anguish over the Ayodhya episode. Subsequently, however, the BJP emerged stronger and rallied itself around all the anti-Congress forces and catapulted Vajpayee to the centre stage. And bygones were bygones.
Given Vajpayee’s inimitable oratorical skills and his amiability, he emerged as an all-inclusive personality which proved to be a great political asset for the BJP. But it would be wrong to assess that Vajpayee emerged simply because of these traits. This sudden discovery of various virtues in Vajpayee is quite akin to yearning for a past that never existed. Similarly, the vilification of Modi is being used as effective tactics not only by the adversaries but also by the allies of the party to beat home the point that the BJP is internally quite vulnerable. The manner in which the party goofed up in the presidential election is just an indication of the atrophy afflicting the party leadership.
What will be left of the left
What appears quite significant is the fact that the syndrome that afflicts the NDA has also taken its toll on the left front. The left front which had put up a united face on many issues found the presidential candidature explosive enough to rip through the left’s fabled unity. The CPM, the most vocal critic of the government’s economic policy, decided to bury the hatchet and support Mukherjee much against the wishes of the CPI. The obvious reason is that the CPM does not want to be seen opposing the prospect of the first president from West Bengal where such issues evoke emotional response. Once again this clever and calculated move is packaged in ideological idioms and phrases and justified in the name of secularism.
As monsoon marches ahead to inundate a parched Delhi and a new sun is set to rise over the Raisina Hill, this silly season has apparently turned out to be an occasion for deep churning in the Indian politics.