Just when it appeared certain that the “race for the Rashtrapati” had been virtually settled, the political pot is boiling over. The numbers still favour Pranab Mukherjee, but what started off as an effort on the part of sections of the Opposition to put up at least a “token fight” is turning into a halfways-serious contest.
Critically, momentum is building up for former President APJ Abdul Kalam to overcome his inhibition and enter the fray. On Saturday, he received a steady stream of visitors at his home in Delhi, and after giving them a patient hearing, he is believed to be coming around the view that there is merit in their pitch for him to contest.
So far, Kalam had made it clear that he would not consider his nomination unless it came about by consensus; but after some intense political lobbying on Saturday, he seems to be less inhibited about a contest. He has promised to take a final decision on the matter on the basis of a realistic assessment of his prospects based on further consultations with Opposition parties.
The Hindu reports, quoting an adviser to Kalam, that the former President had had a hectic Saturday with visits from Janata Party president Subramanian Swamy and leaders of various other political parties. “Thousands of emails, SMS and signature campaign letters are pouring in from all over the country asking Mr. Kalam to contest,” the report noted. ”He was overwhelmed by the support of the people, particularly youth. At least 5,000 comments and 35,000 likes have registered in the Facebook where users have appealed him to join the fray.”
The BJP-led NDA is to meet on Sunday to formalise its position on the Presidential election, but it appears that key constituents are inclined to not let Pranab Mukherjee go unchallenged – even though the numbers are weighted in the UPA’s favour.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh did call BJP leaders to solicit the party’s support for Pranab Mukherjee’s candidature, but from all accounts, the atmospherics of that outreach were not entirely propitious. For one thing, BJP leaders believe that the Congress had been discourteous in not seeking the BJP’s support before announcing Pranab Mukherjee’s candidature.
Even if the NDA did not itself put up a candidate – in the event that Kalam declines to contest – opinion in the leading constituents of the alliance is veering around to the wisdom of at least backing former Loka Sabha Speaker PA Sangma, who has indicated that he would like to contest and has the support of the AIADMK and the BJD.
There is of course a risk that this could accentuate divisions within the NDA – for instance, the JD(U) led by Nitish Kumar has said it would back Pranab Mukherjee’s candidature. Yet, BJP leaders see much merit in putting up even a token fight.
For one thing, it would put some distance between the NDA and a discredited UPA at a time when the ruling coalition faces severe popular backlash, as evidenced by recent electoral trends. The BJP reckons that it is important to signal to its party rank and file that it still has some verve; even though it has nothing personal against Pranab Mukherjee, it doesn’t want to be seen to be striking deals with the UPA on, for instance, getting its Vice-presidential candidate in.
For another, the suggestion that the BJP may not contest Pranab Mukherjee’s election has led to stormy petrels like Ram Jethmalani to pipe up with the threat of himself contesting – even if it means going against the party – to put up a token fight.
Jethmalani said on Saturday that while he respected Mukherjee at a personal level, he did not consider him worthy of the office of Presidency. Jethmalani also pointed out that Mukherjee had not disclosed the names of the holders of black money hoards in foreign banks, even though he had received the names.
The BJP is not inclined to back Jethmalani, but it is acutely aware of its failure to put up even a token fight is causing much heartburn in its rank and file.
Additionally, putting up even a token fight would help it acknowledge the role of its regional allies, including the AIADMK and the BJD – and perhaps even to reach out to UPA ally Mamata Banerjee, who waged a stormy rebellion against the Congress’ choice, but was outmanoeuvred when Mulayam Singh Yadav broke ranks with her to back Pranab Mukherjee’s candidature.
In that sense, the BJP sees even a token fight as an investment in its political future, which it hopes will pay off in 2014 or whenever the next elections are held.