Quest for Rashtrapati Bhavan: Is a consensus even possible on the new president?
In less fraught times, it may have been possible to evolve a consensus on the former Lok Sabha Speaker, Meira Kumar as next President of India
For a party known for its hubris, the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) decision to consult the Opposition for a consensus on the presidential candidate has come as a pleasant surprise.
However, it is possible that its majority in the electoral college has enabled the party to display a show of magnanimity.
At the same time, the information and broadcasting minister, Venkaiah Naidu, has reminded the opposition parties that although the consultations will take place in the "true spirit of a democracy", they must remember that "the mandate of the people is for the government."
Naidu is one of the three chosen by the BJP to interact with the Opposition. The other two are home minister Rajnath Singh and finance minister Arun Jaitley.
However, the chances of a consensus candidate being chosen will brighten only if the BJP refuses to abide by the wish reportedly conveyed by its mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), that the party must utilise the advantage of a majority in the electoral college to choose a person who is a Hindutva ideologue.
Considering that the RSS has succeeded in planting saffron aficionados in a fairly large number of "autonomous" institutions, including the Indian Council of Historical Research and the Indian Council of Social Science Research, it is unlikely to be hesitant about having a man of its choice in Rashtrapati Bhavan, the best prize of all.
Perhaps reading its mind, the Shiv Sena had suggested RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat's name as the next President. The Maharashtrian party may have also wanted to test the BJP's sincerity to the cause of Hindutva, for it has said that Bhagwat will be a good choice to turn India into a Hindu rashtra (nation).
However, after Bhagwat himself turned down the proposal, the Sena has opted for MS Swaminathan, known as the father of India's "green revolution" in agriculture. The name of E Sreedharan, the engineer who built the world-class Delhi Metro, has also been mentioned. Needless to say, both are eminently suitable for the high office if only because of their distance from politics.
There might have been a faint chance of a compromise between the BJP and the "secular" parties if LK Advani's name was put forward. However, the BJP's margdarshak (visionary) has not been a favourite of the RSS ever since he praised Mohammed Ali Jinnah during a visit to Pakistan. Indeed, he had to leave the party president's post soon afterwards.
More recently, however, his involvement in the Babri Masjid demolition case as a "conspirator" has effectively ruled out his chances. Similarly, Murli Manohar Joshi, who is known to be close to the RSS, has also lost the opportunity for making it to the big house on top of the Raisina Hill because of the Babri Masjid case.
Cynics have said that the reopening of the case against them by the Central Bureau of Investigation was meant by the powers that be to keep them out of reckoning, for neither of them is believed to enjoy Narendra Modi's trust.
However, another person, who was not delighted with Modi's elevation in the BJP before the general election, that is Sushma Swaraj, has come to the forefront. She has several plus points. One is her humanitarian acts as the external affairs minister where her help is required by, among others, by stranded NRIs and ailing Pakistanis. The other, and more important, is that she is believed to enjoy the backing of the RSS.
Among the other front-runners are Draupadi Murmu, the governor of Jharkhand, and Sumitra Mahajan, the Lok Sabha Speaker.
The choice of Murmu, a tribal, will enable the BJP to reach out to one of the most neglected communities in the country, about whom the now virtually forgotten but undoubtedly their foremost leader, Jaipal Singh Munda (1903-1970), told the constituent Assembly that "the whole history of my people is one of continuous exploitation and dispossession by the non-aboriginals of India".
It is clear that none of the BJP's opponents will oppose her choice for obvious reasons. But whether Murmu herself will be interested is unclear, for the president's post can be the end of the road where a political career is concerned. Being 59 years old, a relatively young age for a politician, she may be unwilling to put a full stop to any further advancement in politics. Rumours have it, therefore, that she is keener on a cabinet berth at the Centre.
A consensus is also possible on Mahajan, for she has shown herself to be temperamentally calm. But this may be the very reason why the RSS is said to be against her.
In less fraught times, it may have been possible to evolve a consensus on the former Lok Sabha Speaker, Meira Kumar, who, as a Dalit and with a distinguished lineage — she is Jagjivan Ram's daughter — may have had claims similar to Murmu's for being selected for the highest constitutional position in the land.
But her Congress background ruins her chances straightaway in view of the BJP's avowed intention of making India Congress-mukt (free). Moreover, the RSS would have been appalled to find a Congress person once again becoming the president.
If the Congress is untouchable for the saffron lobby, so are the Muslims, which is why the Vice-President Hamid Ansari did not have a chance. And there is no one like APJ Abdul Kalam around, who was a nationalist despite being a Muslim, as Minister for Culture Mahesh Sharma said.
The Left parties have been pushing for Gopal Krishna Gandhi, a grandson of the "chatur bania" (clever trader) as BJP president Amit Shah described Mahatma Gandhi.
But for all his credentials — a former governor and diplomat and related to the Mahatma and C Rajagopalachari — his palpable secularism is a black mark where the Modi dispensation is concerned.
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