As expected the BJP rejected out of hand Prime Minister'ssuggestion that NDA needs to support ruling alliance'scandidate for the office of the President of India. It is for the ruling party to reach out to the Opposition and try to find a candidate acceptable to both sides. This is what NDA did in 2002 to build a broad consensus in favour of A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. As usual, Left parties remained out of the mainstream and fielded a non-descript candidate that couldn'tmuster even 1/10th of the votes. Dr. Manmohan Singh didn'tbother to take the Opposition into confidence about the crucial issue but expects NDA to do what it is told to do. Such arrogance of power is intrinsically undemocratic and Congress party'strademark. Several leaders are in the race for the highest office of the land. External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee was, at one point of time, in the reckoning. He was supported by the Left and commanded the approbation of all constituents of the UPA as he is one of the most accomplished political leaders of the country. The argument put forward by the Congress party against his nomination is that he is indispensable for running the coalition. It is a sad comment on the position and abilities of the Prime Minister. N.D. Tewari, one of the senior most Congress leaders, was also mentioned as a probable candidate. He has the stature and the experience to be the face of India. Dr. Karan Singh, who has been waiting for more than a decade to be chosen as the Head of the State, is a scholar of high order and reminds one of Dr. S. Radhakrishnan. As an inheritor of the J&K throne, his candidature would have sent right signals to international community about our position on J&K. Of course, the Left vetoed him because he stands for Indian civilization and culture?issues with which Communists are not comfortable.
Although UPA is yet to officially announce its nominee, Union Home Minister Shivraj Patil appears to be the hot favourite. The Left and the NCP have strong reservations about Patil'scandidature because of his rejection by the people of Latur in the last parliamentary elections and his lacklustre performance as the Union Home Minister. Yet, the Congress supremo Sonia Gandhi is for him for reasons not entirely unfathomable. Political observers trace her insistence on Patil to what happened during her meeting with the President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam in 2004 after she was elected leader of the CPP and the UPA. President Kalam, it is said, drew her attention to certain memoranda submitted by Subramanian Swami and others challenging her citizenship and the likely legal and constitutional battles in the event of her being sworn in as Prime Minister. After that fateful meeting with the President, she spoke of ?renunciation? prompted by her ?inner voice?. Her track record doesn'tinspire confidence. It was she who had called on the President in 1999 after the Vajpayee government was defeated by one vote, to claim that she had the support of 272 Lok Sabha members. SP leader Mulayam Singh punctured her claim by informing the President that his party won'tsupport her. It will, therefore, not be wrong to surmise that she zeroed on Patil because he is close to the dynasty and is perceived to be pliant. She can rely on him to do her bidding while discharging his constitutional obligations. She appears to be suspicious of men who won'tbe anyone'slackey. On its part, the Congress party brought into play all tricks of the trade to secure BSP'ssupport for UPA candidate. UP Governor T.R. Rajeshwar'srefusal to grant permission to CBI to prosecute Mayawati in the infamous Taj Heritage Corridor Scandal and her announcement to support the UPA candidate for presidency is perceived to be a case of quid pro quo. UP Chief Minister was greatly relieved by Governor'sdecision and let the cat out of the bag by claiming it as her ?victory? and said that she would soon ?open her cards?. Having ensured the support of BSP, the Congress is in a comfortable position as UPA candidate supported by the Left and the BSP can muster majority of the value of votes of the electoral college, if there is no cross voting.
The most likely person to oppose the ruling alliance'scandidate is the Vice President of India, Bhairon Singh Shekhawat. Although he has not yet announced his candidature, his supporters have been quietly working for weeks to ensure his victory. Although he has been in BJS and BJP for half a century and is deeply rooted in the BJP ideology and values, he ceased to be a member of the party after his election as Vice President. It is, therefore, not surprising that he is being projected as an Independent candidate. It is a clever strategy. While NDA will lend its full support to Shekhawat, his position as an Independent candidate will make his task of getting support from the fledgling ?secular? front comprising SP, AIADMK, AGP, INLD and TDP and other small parties much easier. Shekhawat has a formidable track record as a political leader and administrator. He was elected to the Rajasthan Assembly in the first general elections as a Jana Sangh candidate and passed with honours the test of his commitment to the party'svalues by voting for the Zamindari Abolition Bill. Interestingly, an overwhelming majority of JS legislators defied the party whip and opposed the bill and were subsequently expelled from the party. He was elected to the State Assembly 10 times and was thrice Chief Minister of Rajasthan before getting elected as Vice President. His greatest strength is his ability to take along diverse segments and to evolve broad political consensus to resolve delicate issues. This quality will stand him in good stead if he is elected to the top post.
The coming presidential elections is a fight between a light-weight politician who is not the willing choice of UPA and its supporting parties and a political stalwart who is respected across the board and has proved his mettle as Vice President of India and Chief Minister of Rajasthan. He has friends and admirers in almost all political parties and his personal relationship transcends party barriers. He proved his capacity to get votes from even the rival parties in 2002 Vice Presidential elections when he romped home to victory with a big margin because of cross voting by MPs belonging to UPA and its supporters. Shekhawat is a formidable candidate despite the fact that UPA and its supporting parties are ahead of the Opposition by more than one lakh votes in the electoral college comprising elected members of Parliament and Assemblies. There are grave apprehensions in the Congress party over cross voting by recalcitrant elements within the UPA and the parties supporting it. Sonia Gandhi and her team are working out strategies to prevent such an eventuality because they know a defeat in the coming presidential election may destabilise the UPA government. Let everyone keep his/her fingers crossed.