New Delhi, June 12: The cards-close-to-chest presidential nomination game is likely to course through political imponderables a little longer even as the Election Commission fixed July 19 as the date of polling for the nation’s highest office and July 22 as the day its new incumbent will be known.
With a little more than a fortnight left for the nomination deadline, the Congress has not spelt out its pick, content to let speculation thicken around the nomination of finance minister Pranab Mukherjee. It is no secret anymore Mukherjee is keen to find the leadership’s nod but the Congress has held back a positive signal to its senior-most cabinet minister.
Mukherjee met Congress president Sonia Gandhi last night and is believed to have been told that the leadership wants to consult all allies — probably even send out feelers to non-UPA, non-NDA parties — before it makes up its mind.
Mukherjee has not found Sonia’s endorsement yet, but well-placed sources suggest he has reason to remain optimistic. The chief concern of the Congress leadership, the sources said, was to ensure they make the presidential battle a no-risk one well ahead of entering it.
Beleaguered by recurrent crises and faced with tough prospects in 2014, the Congress is keen to avoid any setback or embarrassment in the race for Rashtrapati Bhavan. It is this factor, some say, that gives Mukherjee higher hope. His name has been met favourably by a cross section of allies and adversaries such as the Janata Dal (United) even in the absence of any formal decision.
Key, though, to his fortunes would be Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, who arrived here this evening on a formal invitation from Sonia for consultations on the presidential candidacy.
In a clear signal that she is no pushover and would not rubberstamp the Congress’s choice, Mamata drove straight into a huddle with Samajwadi Party boss Mulayam Singh Yadav on arriving here early evening by an Air India flight, although Sonia’s political secretary Ahmad Patel had offered a private aircraft.
On emerging from the 25-minute meeting, Mamata indicated that she and Mulayam were now a tandem act on negotiating the presidential candidate. “We discussed the issue of the President,” Mamata said. “I will meet Sonia Gandhi tomorrow and come to Mulayam Singh for discussions.”
But it is not clear if Mamata has succeeded in convincing Mulayam they should work as a “composite team”, clearly her intention. There is a key difference between the two. Mulayam has openly expressed support for Mukherjee. Mamata has refrained from any commitment so far.
Mamata could still be lobbying Mulayam’s support in order to secure more leverage with the Congress and the UPA government. She has privately told aides that no Congress nominee will be able to go through “without support from me and Mulayam”. But Mulayam has a history of turning postures overnight. After hectoring with the Left against the Indo-US nuclear deal in 2008, he suddenly turned pro-deal and bailed the government out in a critical confidence motion.
Although Mulayam has been less strident on his demands in comparison to Mamata, he too has a wish list that he wants the Centre to sanction. “Mayawati has left UP bankrupt and we require urgent financial assistance to get the state back on the rails,” a senior SP leader said today. There are also indications that in return for its support to a “political” candidate for the presidency, the SP might drive a bargain for the office of Vice-President.
In probably a related manoeuvre late last night, Mukherjee dropped out of a scheduled visit to Kabul, a trip assigned to him by the Prime Minister. Sources said that Ahmad Patel had advised Mukherjee to opt out on the grounds that his presence will be required as consultations on the presidential nominee gather ground.
Patel’s request cannot, however, be automatically construed as a sign there is a decision on Mukherjee’s candidacy. It could well be that he was required at hand to work out finer details of an economic package to Bengal, widely speculated to be linked to Mamata’s backing for the Congress nominee. (Law and minority affairs minister Salman Khurshid has now been tasked to travel to Kabul.)
Although Mamata has repeatedly denied there is any link between the package and negotiations over the presidential candidate, preparations in the finance ministry for working out the modalities of an aid bouquet are clearly dovetailed with hectic political negotiations.
Several logistical and political pieces need to be fitted in by the Congress leadership if Mukherjee is to be its eventual choice for Rashtrapati Bhavan. For a start, political propriety will dictate that he quit the government before filing his nomination and a new regime is installed in the finance ministry currently plunged in all manner of deficit crises.
One reason why the Congress may delay an formal announcement on Mukherjee is that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will be abroad for more than a week, attending the G20 Summit in Mexico and then the Rio+20 conference before returning home on June 24. Mukherjee will be required to hold fort during that period.
But there are issues with Mukherjee that go beyond that. A big concern among Congress managers is finding a replacement for Mukherjee not merely as leader of the Lok Sabha but as backroom political manager and trouble-shooter at large.
Mukherjee carries the longest experience as apex-level player and has been the default choice for the Congress as crisis manager. Moving him to Rashtrapati Bhavan may allow the Prime Minister the leverage he has long wanted in the finance ministry, but it will also rob the party of a tactician in the run-up to ahead of the 2014 general elections.