Will it be President Pranab?

ELECTIONS TO the post of the President of India, a largely ceremonial sinecure for politicians being put out to pasture by the ruling dispensation, are usually bereft of the excitement of the general elections to parliament.

This time though the run-up to the elections threatens to tear apart the two major political coalitions in the country, the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) and the opposition National Democratic Alliance (NDA).

The Congress, which dominates the UPA, took an inordinately long time to declare its candidate for the top constitutional post. The Trinamool Congress, which is the second-largest party in the UPA after the Congress, tried to act smart by jointly proposing, along with the Samajwadi Party, the name of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh among others, hoping to embarrass the ruling party. However, the Congress got even with its ally, which is headed by a mercurial Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of West Bengal, by getting the Samajwadi Party to reverse its stance and back its official candidate, Pranab Mukherjee, the finance minister.

A veteran Congressman, trouble-shooter par excellence and a politician with a deep understanding of the functioning of Indian democracy, Mukherjee also has friends in virtually every party. Once the Congress officially declared his name as its candidate, Mukherjee went about encashing his IOUs with other parties and winning wide support even from the opposition. In fact, his candidature now threatens to unravel the NDA, as some of its key allies including the Janata Dal (United) — which is in power in Bihar — and even the right-wing Shiv Sena publicly proclaiming their support to Mukherjee.

Many in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which leads the NDA, are also sympathetic to Mukherjee and there is every likelihood that there could be extensive cross-voting during the presidential elections, where parliamentarians and legislators from the states can vote according to their ‘conscience’ in a secret ballot exercise that protects them from action by their party ‘high command’ for violating their strictures.

The BJP also suffered a setback when former President APJ Abdul Kalam, whose name was being proposed by the NDA and Banerjee among others, opted out of the race. The NDA, minus some of its key allies such as the JDU and the Sena, is now extending support to former parliament speaker P.A. Sangma, whose own party, the Nationalist Congress Party — part of the UPA — has disowned his candidature.

For Mukherjee, it should be smooth sailing now, especially with the Left parties also supporting him. But the UPA government will find it hard to fill the breach following his departure to Rasthrapati Bhavan, the regal presidential palace in Delhi. As one of the longest-serving ministers at the centre, Mukherjee was also virtually running the government, heading numerous key committees, busily engaged in fire-fighting and protecting his apolitical bosses including Prime Minister Singh and Congress and UPA chief Sonia Gandhi, from the dirt flung by opposition parties.

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