Prez Polls: The Best Address in Town

Published: Mon, 07/02/2012 - 14:13 Updated: Fri, 07/06/2012 - 07:35

The inside story behind Pranab Mukherjee’s nomination for president seems like a thriller with an unfinished ending

Sanjay Kapoor Delhi

In 2007, Pranab Mukherjee was very keen to be the UPA’s presidential candidate. He had lobbied hard for it and felt he had a good chance to be the occupant of the country’s best address. He had told one of his cabinet colleagues that the latter  should present himself on the day he filed his nomination. His colleague was better informed; he left Delhi the day Pranabda, as he is called in political circles, was expected to file his nomination papers. True to this fellow minister’s information, Pranabda was refused the president’s job, which, finally, went to Pratibha Patil  — India’s first woman president.

Mukherjee failed to find supportfor his candidature from Congress President Sonia Gandhi. Sources claiming proximity to Sonia asserted that she did not ‘trust him’ as he had left the party a few times and had also not concealed his ambition for the PM’s job. In 2007, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, too, despite having had a long association with him, chose to stick by the Congress president’s preferences and proclivities. And that meant Mukherjee had to stay on as the finance minister and be the beast of burden of UPA-II.

Five years later, there has been little change in Pranabda’s fierce desire to be president. This time around, there was only a change in political circumstances. Again, he was not Sonia’s  preferred candidate for the job. In a recent interview to a TV channel, Pranabda candidly acknowledged this
painful fact.

Interestingly, he was used by Sonia to garner the support of the allies for the UPA’s candidate. Surely, she could not have sent him all over the country to drum up support for himself. Tactically, the Congress did not want to reveal its choice lest it got tripped by the internal dynamics of the alliance. It hoped the allies would trust it enough to back
it’s candidate.

People who met the Congress chief during the run-up to the announcement came back with an impression that she had Hamid Ansari in mind. Others who met her reportedly suggested vigorously that instead of sending Mukherjee to Rashtrapati Bhavan, he should be made prime minister. Their belief was that Singh was displaying an ennui towards the job that had begun to hurt the Congress everywhere.

A specialist economist, the least he was expected to do was to provide competent stewardship of the economy. Raging inflation and the plummeting value of the rupee had taken the sheen off the PM’s ‘sterling show’ as the architect of ‘new India’. Recent electoral reverses were presented as evidence of how the government was hurting the party. Rahul Gandhi’s sorry performance while leading the campaign for the assembly elections in UP was also attributed to the failings of his government. In one of the party meetings, the Congress president had absolved her son of all responsibility for the debacle in UP.

People who make a living by claiming proximity to the Gandhi family indicated wide-ranging changes in the party and the government. Strong hints were dropped that Singh might be kicked upstairs to Rashtrapati Bhavan. It is not clear whether Sonia gave legitimacy to these suggestions, but there was plenty of smoke emanating from her official residence, 10, Janpath, to indicate that floating Singh’s name for the president’s job was no figment of a creative mind.

Evidence: When mercurial leader from West Bengal Mamata Banerjee went to meet Sonia to discuss the future president, she emerged with a bizarre announcement that Mukherjee was the Congress’s first choice followed by Ansari. However, a couple of hours later, in a press conference that shook up the calculations of the Congress and others, Banerjee and Mulayam Singh Yadav announced their choice of candidates, including Singh. At that time, it was believed that Banerjee had been prompted to float the PM’s name by people close to the Congress chief. Otherwise, she would not have indulged in the mischief of mentioning Singh’s name. 

Mukherjee and his handlers realised that if they did not react quickly, he would lose the race. The PM, too, it is learnt, backed him in his enterprise. In some ways, the coming together of the PM and Mukherjee stole the initiative from those trying to engineer a subtle coup to ease out Singh.

Mukherjee visited Sonia the same night and requested her to consider his candidature for president. Sources claim that she was reluctant to shift him from the government since she believed he could not be spared. However, she relented and instructed party General Secretary Janardan Dwivedi to announce that the PM could not be spared for the job of president till 2014. Dwivedi also criticised Banerjee for the manner in which she revealed the discussion with the Congress president.

After that, it was but a matter of time before Mukherjee’s name was announced by the UPA as its presidential candidate. He may win quite easily against Purno Sangma, who has been pushed by the BJD’s Naveen Patnaik and the AIADMK’s Jayalalitha and is now backed by the BJP.

To reiterate, the coming together of the PM and Pranabda to stall the attempts of those who tried to hasten a leadership change in the government represents an interesting shift in power. By maintaining the status quo, the attempts of those trying to foist Rahul as the PM, against his wishes, have come to grief. They will have to wait for another day.

Untill Pranabda swung the issue in his own favour, it was the Congress president, her powerful political secretary, Ahmed Patel, and Rahul, who decided amongst themselves. Many found this process humiliating for senior leaders even as it seemed to devalue the Prime Minister’s Office.

After Pranabda’s elevation for the job of president, there is growing recognition that the PM would be able to work with greater freedom. Perhaps for the first time, Singh accorded full display to his emotions when Pranabda’s name was announced. He moved him around to enable the photographers to take the right shot. It seemed as if Pinocchio had come to life.

Even during his recent trip for the G-20 meet to Mexico, the PM radiated health and decisiveness. After he assumed charge of the finance ministry, he has given an impression of greater purpose. He has begun to review decisions like the controversial retrospective tax and General Anti-Avoidance Rules (GAAR). He is also meeting his advisers to figure out ways to challenge an impression that policy paralysis has gripped the government.

An economy that is sustained by expectations may begin creeping up if people start believing that something is happening. Interestingly, Pranabda did not have any worthwhile meeting on saving the economy with the PM all the time he occupied his North Block office.

This brings us to a bigger question: Why did the PM not sit down with his FM to fix the economy? Is it that he is too timid to question someone to whom he used to report, or is there more to it?

The friends of the PM  — all those who swore by economic reforms  — claim that Mukherjee has been turfed as he was trying to take the economy back to licence permit raj and antagonising many business houses through irrational IT raids. They believe that the economy will start bouncing back under Singh’s leadership.

The inside story behind Pranab Mukherjee’s nomination for president seems like a thriller with an unfinished ending
Sanjay Kapoor Delhi

Read more stories by Prez Polls: The Best Address in Town

This story is from print issue of HardNews