In the uncertainties of the political world, today’s prophecy is tomorrow’s folly. Game-changer one day, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee was transformed in public perception into a match-fixer the following day, and the big loser shortly afterwards.
Invited to consultations on a possible consensus choice as the next President, Mamata chose to breach the norms of discretion that are observed in such matters. In emerging from her meeting with Congress president Sonia Gandhi and announcing the two names that had been in circulation for at least a month as likely nominees of the party, Mamata only reaffirmed the obvious truth that it is futile to expect any process of high-level political consultations to remain under wraps for long. Her place in the headlines had to wait till a few hours later, when she proposed, after discussions with Mulayam Singh Yadav – another regional politician with immense leverage within the shifting numerical configurations of the Indian parliament – that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was a candidate that she could support for President.
Her words threw political analysts into a frenzy of speculation and the Congress leadership into a deep and in many ways revealing, silence. The dramatic impact was not lessened by the two alternative names she put forward: former President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, known to be a favoured candidate of the opposition BJP and some of its coalition partners, and former Lok Sabha speaker Somnath Chatterjee, a CPI(M) stalwart since fallen from grace. Though no reasons were given for her refusal to accede to either of the two names the Congress had fielded -- Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee and Vice President Hamid Ansari, in that order of preference – she had taken political cover. Chatterjee’s name was insurance against alienating native Bengali sentiment over her ostensible lack of enthusiasm for Mukherjee’s candidacy. And putting forward Kalam’s name was an obvious bargaining ploy, a thinly veiled warning that she would not hesitate to talk terms with the opposition if the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) continued ignoring her demands.
Mamata’s rather audacious proposition intersected in myriad ways with unstated opinions within the UPA, about the best options for the coalition to find its way out of a chronic state of crisis. That was clearly enough, the reason for the very visible initial disorientation of the Congress leadership. Her numerical clout in Parliament made Mamata a potential game-changer, with decisive power in any close contest. Her very loud suggestion that the Prime Minister who has looked increasingly at sea over the challenges of managing a fractious coalition, should move onto the gilded cage of Rashtrapati Bhavan, cast her as a match-fixer, seeking to bring to fruition agendas that dared not speak their names in the dynastic and personality-centred milieu of the Congress.
In the event, the disorientation of the Mamata moment was followed within twenty-four hours – just long enough for the news cycle to dissect its implications in minute detail – by blinding clarity. After wavering between two names for over a month and gaining the formal mandate of the party to determine who its candidate for president should be, Sonia Gandhi finally made her move. Pranab Mukherjee it was to be. Suddenly with almost mystical precision, the pieces all seemed to fall in place. Mulayam Singh signed on as did Mayawati, his principal rival in the regional context. The match-fixer now looked not merely isolated, but distinctly the loser.
Mamata has rarely in a stormy political career, shown serious discomfiture at adverse portrayals by the media or by political opponents. She reacted in character in her moment of isolation, vowing to fight on. The matter was not settled till the last vote in the presidential election was cast.
The Congress had won one round. It was an election that could potentially have been a bruising affair. And as the party leadership hesitated, squandering any possible strategic advantage it could have gained by quick and decisive action, media pundits were already bringing up images from the 1969 presidential contest, when Indira Gandhi rebelled against the official Congress candidate, preparing the ground for an epochal split in the party. Collective and individual political insecurities of the Congress satraps – and their voluntary thraldom to the “high command” – make a split an unlikely event today. But a large-scale desertion of UPA partners was a distinct possibility, as the Manmohan Singh government flounders in search of a credible response to numerous challenges. And the presidential election could have been a possible trigger for this mass shift of political allegiance.
Pranab Mukherjee’s nomination puts a seasoned political manager – the Congress’s man for every crisis – in line for the most weighty job under the Indian constitution. In that position, he could like the current incumbent, lapse into a phase of near invisibility. But circumstances are more likely to cast him as the decisive player in numerous situations of political uncertainty. His life and career as a staunch man of the party – except for a phase of oblivion during the Rajiv Gandhi years – were doubtless, the reason why the BJP had initial doubts. A man deeply steeped in the affairs of a particular party would likely have a strong partisan streak in him. It is to Mukherjee’s credit that at the moment of his nomination, he was seen more as the conciliator than the partisan.
With the presidency likely to be in the hands of a trusted insider, the Congress would have to turn its attention to numerous challenges, large and small. Ironically, the consensus on Mukherjee came on the precise day that by-election results in Andhra Pradesh were proclaiming the near complete erosion of the Congress’s most secure bastion among the major states. Andhra Pradesh is a state that the Congress won in a landslide in two successive assembly elections and in both 2004 and 2009, victory in Andhra Pradesh was the prelude to convincing performances in general elections to parliament. With the state now slipping out of its grip, the Congress faces the leadership deficit that is the inevitable outcome of years spent under the tutelage of the “high command”.
The line of succession to the party’s top spot remains clear, but the ascent of the presumptive heir is delayed – perhaps indefinitely -- by his continuing failure to make a dent in the politics of the Hindi belt. Yet since this element of the Congress’s destiny is written in stone, there is an active deterrent against the emergence of new and more credible leaders. The only solace for the Congress is the disarray in the BJP, which is perhaps even greater. It is a context in which the so-called “federal front” gains traction as a potential reality of the near future. Even for those who are philosophically reconciled to coalitions as an eternal feature of Indian politics, the “federal front”, which would be an alliance of regional parties without the solid substratum of a national party to bind them together, looks like a recipe for endless instability and misgovernance.
Key here would be the role of the president established through recent convention, to advise and counsel in the defence of constitutional and political propriety. Since the tenures of Shankar Dayal Sharma and K.R. Narayanan, general elections have not thrown up the kind of indecisive outcome that makes presidential discretion a factor. Between 1996 and 1999, three general elections were held and five governments sworn in. There may have been a miscued presidential intervention the first time around, with Sharma inviting by virtual mechanical reflex, the leader of the largest single party to form a government, only to see it fall within days. But the following four governments were sworn in only after sufficient commitments of stability were obtained from the main political actors. That these commitments were not honoured is another matter, which does not reflect on the soundness of the presidential deliberation that preceded.
There have been presidents who have at various times floated plans to deal with such contingencies. But these have seemed to intrude into the domain of executive action and possible political negotiation, instances that have in the judgment of constitutional experts, diminished the office. Instances when the power to counsel has been a salutary restraint on the rush to political excess could be cited in R. Venkatraman declining to sign an amendment to the law on MPs’ compensation in 1991, and in K.R. Narayanan urging the union cabinet to reconsider its advice on president’s rule in Uttar Pradesh, following a factional split within the ruling party in the state in 1997.
As he prepares for a presidential term, which now seems assured failing completely unforeseen political perturbations, Mukherjee would have an ample compilation of constitutional doctrine and practices to draw from. When Atal Behari Vajpayee’s BJP-led government fell on the basis of a solitary vote in the Lok Sabha in 1999, Narayanan as president deliberated long and hard over all courses open to him. The delay led to some restiveness and open accusations of partisanship by the BJP. The president’s response then was to issue a communiqué seeking to reassure the public that “all valuable comments from across the political spectrum” were being considered, and that “past precedents as well as new circumstances” were being reckoned with. The situation though was “without earlier paradigm in India” and necessitated minute examination.
As the proliferation of regional political forces changes the paradigm of politics in India, Mukherjee’s challenge would be to ensure that constitutional practice does not deviate seriously from the basic model of parliamentary democracy.