Pranab for Prez? Forget it. How will UPA survive then?
After Hamid Ansari, Pranab Mukherjee is emerging as the next possible option for the presidency. But the odds are against this happening
If it’s not Hamid Ansari, could it be Pranab Mukherjee for president?
News channels have been reporting that Mukherjee is in with a chance since Trinamool Congress is not averse to supporting him, and even the Left may not object to his candidature. If the Samajwadi Party hops onto the bandwagon at some point – though it is still harping on a Muslim candidate - it would leave only the BJP really fuming over Mukherjee’s name. But its ally Janata Dal (United) may have no problem with either Ansari or Mukherjee.
However, Mukherjee will not be a shoo-in for the job, for some very rational and irrational reasons.
First, the irrational ones relate to Sonia Gandhi, and her known wariness about Pranab Mukherjee’s ambitions. When Indira Gandhi was assassinated, Pranab offered himself as a prime ministerial choice, and this reportedly angered Rajiv and Sonia. But, more importantly, given his cross-party acceptability, Sonia Gandhi may be happier with a resident in Rashtrapati Bhavan she can trust in 2014 – assuming the Congress, short on numbers, needs time to cobble a majority together. So, no Pranab as president.
Second, Pranab Mukherjee has huge utility where he is – as virtual No 2 in government, and the UPA’s main trouble-shooter. Pranab's is the only political mind at the top in UPA; Manmohan Singh has no credibility and Chidambaram is widely disliked by his peers and opposition parties. If UPA wants to survive the remaining two years to 2014 without mishap, it is not Manmohan Singh or Chidambaram who are going to deliver this outcome, but Mukherjee. And Sonia knows this. She would thus prefer an Ansari or even an AK Antony for president – both are loyalists rather than movers and shakers.
Third, getting kicked upstairs to Rashtrapati Bhavan may not suit any of his powerful ministry advisors – and especially his all-powerful Woman Friday, Omita Paul. In UPA-2, power resides in the finance ministry apart from 10 Janpath, and no one who benefits from this powerplay is likely to recommend that Mukherjee should call it a day and slink off to presidency. Consider how long the finance ministry has stalled the appointment of a CEO for UTI Mutual Fund because Omita Paul’s brother has not yet found favour. With Mukherjee gone, the power players will have to wind up shop in North Block.
Fourth, Mukherjee himself – assuming rumours of his occasional prime ministerial ambitions are true – may not want to be in Rashtrapati Bhavan if 2014 is going to throw up a hung house where power will shift to the person with the greatest acceptability. This was the hope that kept Sharad Pawar in the race till 2009, and this is the hope that could keep Mukherjee out of the presidency.
On the other hand, there are two weak reasons why Pranab could consider moving to the ceremonial job.
One, Manmohan Singh may be happy to kick him upstairs to remove the last remaining threat to the throne before 2014. But the PM will not have a big say on Mukherjee.
Two, Mukherjee himself may want a peaceful job – and there are no sinecures to match the one offered by the presidency. Ask Pratibha Patil, who managed to make the most of it.
The odds are 4-2 against Pranab Mukherjee landing the highest office in the land next July. His name is probably a red herring in the initial stages of the presidential sweepstakes.
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