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What will Pranab do about clemency pleas like Afzal Guru?

While granting mercy to many convicts sentenced to death, Pratibha Patil had managed to avoid the political firestorm of Afzal Guru, accused in the 2001 Parliament attack. But will Pranab Mukherjee be able to avoid it?

The issue of Afzal Guru has polarised Indian polity. Reuters

Pranab Mukherjee has already faced awkward moments while on the campaign trail for the presidential poll when he met with Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray in Mumbai to seek his support. What was supposed to be a political coup for Mukherjee, who was getting support from a party that was traditionally allied with the BJP, quickly became a little awkward when Thackeray reportedly pressed his demand to carry out the death sentence for Guru.

While neither spoke about it after the meeting, a Mumbai Mirror report suggested that one of the requests made by Thackeray, who has been seeking the death penalty for Guru for years now, was that Mukherjee deny clemency to the death row convict.

"“It’s our little secret,” Thackeray told a journalist when asked if the political stalwarts had discussed the fate of the former assistant professor whose mercy petition has been pending since 2005.

However, while campaigning in Srinagar, Mukherjee was handed a memorandum asking him to commute the sentence of Guru from death to life. Mukherjee managed to get the MLA concerned to wait until the presidential election was over before taking a decision.

Hemmed in from both sides, Mukherjee could always take a lesson from his predecessor who quietly sidestepped the issue.

Outgoing president Pratibha Patil had commuted the sentences of 39 prisoners on death row on the advice of the Home Ministry, she maintained a studious silence on 11 cases like that of Guru.

An RTI application had revealed that President Patil had received recommendations from the Ministry of Home Affairs on various cases including that of Guru as far back as 2011 but no decision was taken on it though petitions received after that were dealt with, an Indian Express report points out.

Given his famed political acumen and consensus building abilities, will Pranab bite the bullet? Unlikely. He doesn't have to and like his predecessor can let the case lie on his desk, perhaps until the end of his term. But it doesn't mean the controversy will die down anytime soon.