New Delhi, June 14: A Patil handpicked by Sonia Gandhi is set to become the next President but the occupant of the highest ceremonial office in the country will not answer to the first name Shivraj.
Pratibha Patil, the Rajasthan governor hailing from Maharashtra, will carry forever the prefix of the first woman President of India if Sonia Gandhi’s masterstroke in the face of near-certain ignominy pays off.
The 72-year-old Pratibha’s candidature was announced by Sonia Gandhi on a day of fluctuating fortunes that pushed the Congress and the Left perilously close to a break-up before the Congress president pulled the surprise Patil out of her hat.
Sonia sprang the gender-sensitive statement after her preference for home minister Shivraj Patil ran into Left opposition and several alternative names began doing the rounds, the list lengthening by the minute and threatening to become the biggest blot on the UPA’s record.
“It’s a historic moment,” a smiling Sonia said at the end of a UPA-Left meeting at the Prime Minister’s house this evening.
Many Indians may be flogging their memory cells to recall the last time they came across the septuagenarian candidate’s name, though she could be entering Rashtrapati Bhavan before — and if at all — Hillary Clinton returns to the White House.
But the choice of a woman candidate appeared to have thrown the Opposition into disarray, at least in the immediate aftermath of the announcement.
The Shiv Sena, part of the BJP-led NDA, is said to be considering whether to offer support to Pratibha as she hails from the home state of the party that thrives on the sons-(now daughter)-of-the-soil theme.
However, the BJP did not betray its nerves. Sonia and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called Vajpayee late tonight to seek support for Pratibha but the former Prime Minister rejected the plea.
“Atalji, main peheli baar aap ka sahyog maang rahi hoon (This is the first time I am asking for your cooperation),” a source quoted Sonia as telling Vajpayee.
“Aapne der kar di (You are late),” Vajpayee replied, declining to pledge support.
The NDA has advanced a meeting by two days to June 16 to consider whether Vice-President Bhairon Singh Shekhawat should be fielded as an “Independent” candidate backed by the combine.
If the coincidence of Pratibha having the Patil surname may help assuage the hurt feelings of some Congress loyalists who failed to push Shivraj through, her husband’s name could put the Vice-President in a spot of bother if he chooses to contest.
Pratibha’s husband is also a Shekhawat — Devisingh Ransingh Shekhawat — a detail rubbed in by Sharad Pawar when Sonia announced the name of the candidate. Seated at a distance, Sharad Pawar rose to say: “Slight correction, she is Pratibha Patil Shekhawat.”
The “crucial Shekhawat” link is said to have played a significant role in Pratibha edging past Nirmala Deshpande and Mohsina Kidwai who came under consideration after it became clear Shivraj would not be accepted by the Left.
The Vice-President’s supporters conceded that “Bhairon Baba” might find it difficult to contest against a Shekhawat bahu as it may not go down well in Rajasthan.
Aiming to exploit the angle to the hilt, the Congress is coining a slogan: Rajasthan ki bahu, Maharashtra ki beti.
Unless the NDA comes up with an equally surprising candidate and ensures massive cross-voting, the UPA is ahead in the number of votes.
However, the UPA’s upbeat mood in the evening could barely hide the tense moments it lived through the day. Since morning, bad news broke, one after the other.
First, Prakash Karat rejected appeals to accept Shivraj. Then, Ram Vilas Paswan and Lalu Prasad joined in, expressing reservations over Shivraj’s candidature.
In the early afternoon, some Congress leaders were worried whether Sonia could salvage the situation after the allies and the Left turned down the party’s three choices — Shivraj, Sushil Kumar Shinde and Karan Singh who insisted in public he is “best qualified” for the job.
Tension was rising among other senior Congress leaders and cabinet ministers, too, who were keeping a wary eye on one another, hoping that a rival would not be chosen for Rashtrapati Bhavan.
Sources said Sonia, who was aware of the ugly mood, then decided to take a fresh look instead of letting the matter fester.
Once Pratibha’s name rippled down the Congress grapevine, many breathed a sigh of relief. If they haven’t got it, neither has their rival. Besides, the Congress was spared the agony of finding a replacement for Shivraj in the home ministry.
Pratibha said in Rajasthan she was given a hint by Sonia this afternoon when the governor was in Mount Abu. “I never dreamt and thought of the top constitutional post,” she added.
Most of India, too, did not think so till this evening.
One question remains, though. How will she be addressed: rashtrapati or …'
Who’s she' Rajasthan governor. Former deputy chairperson of Rajya Sabha
Double first: Was the first woman to be Rajasthan governor. And if elected, will be the first woman in Rashtrapati Bhavan
Date & place of birth: December 19, 1934, Jalgaon (Maharashtra)
Husband: Devisingh Ransingh Shekhawat
Children: A son and a daughter
At school: Holds a master’s in Arts and a law degree
At play: Was a table tennis champion in her college days
Well-wisher: Called actor-turned-MP Govinda after his family had an accident on the Jaipur-Ajmer road on August 15, 2005