Has Pranab Mukherjee given up residual hopes of being nominated for the Presidential election? Straws in the wind appear to suggest that that may well be the case – perhaps because he has been given an inkling of the range of political opposition to his candidature.
In Kolkata on Saturday, Mukherjee himself gave voice to his quasi-philosophical musings when he said that no one could become President merely on the strength of one's own wish. If that sounded defeatist, even borderline fatalistic acceptance of the odds stacked up against him, his son Abhijit was even more categorical.
"I don't think Baba would be nominated for the key post (of President) because it needs a consensus of the allies in the UPA," The Telegraph quoted Abhijit, who is an MLA, as saying. Perhaps, the newspaper speculated, he had Mamata Banerjee on his mind; the Paschim Banga Chief Minister has publicly stated that she did not consider Mukherjee to be enough of a "son of the soil" and had suggested alternative names, including that of Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar.
One more straw in the wind came by on Saturday when the Congress spokesperson Janardhan Dwivedi went out of his way and volunteered the information that the party had yet to finalise any names for the Presidential nomination. It was perceived as a high-decibel signal that the party was moving to quell media speculation centred around the imminent announcement that Mukherjee's name had been finalised.
Only a day earlier, on Friday, it seemed as if Pranab's candidature had been all but sealed. Congress political secretary Ahmed Patel had had a one-on-one meeting with Mukherjee in Delhi, soon after the Core Group met to discuss the party's candidate for the top post. That prompted speculation that the Congress had finalised its consultations with its alliance partners and had received sufficient endorsement for Mukherjee's nomination.
But it now appears that the party may be having second thoughts on Mukherjee. Speculation on the reasons for the party's inhibitions about nominating him has it that party president Sonia Gandhi is borderline displeased with what is seen as Mukherjee's active lobbying for his candidacy. Pranab-da has earlier given loud hints of his interest in the Presidency, and was even measuring his paces in the Rashtapati Bhavan lawns.
But Mumbai Mirror claims, citing Congress sources, that Mukherjee has "mounted… pressure…. through friendly corporate houses" and Sonia Gandhi "does not like to act under pressure". But rather than oppose Mukherjee directly, Sonia Gandhi was "relying on Trinamool Congress" to spike his candidacy.
A Congress Working Committed member was quoted as saying that Sonia Gandhi "is not keen to elevate Pranab… as he is not a man of her confidence."
If corporate houses are indeed lobbying for Mukherjee to be made President, it may not entirely because they are enamoured of him, but rather more because they want him eased out of the Finance Minister's post, given that his tenure has been characterised by a borderline antagonistic relationship with industry, as manifested in the regressive taxation proposals, and his failure to usher in even the feeblest of reforms.
Seeing Mukherjee out of the Finance Ministry opens up the possibility, however remote, that a reformist-minded person – either P Chidambaram or Montek Singh Ahluwalia or even C Rangarajan – could be appointed. But such calculations ignore the reality that it is Sonia Gandhi who is dead set against a reformist Finance Minister, given her own left-leaning welfarist economic philosophy.
So, if Pranab Mukherjee is indeed out of the race, who is best placed to become President?
Hamid Ansari then becomes the front-runner, a consideration that finds favour with the Congress with an eye on the political dividend that can be extracted in 2014 by nominating a Muslim candidate now. A senior Congress leader told Mumbai Mirror that "it is going to be difficult for Soniaji to refuse Ansari a chance to become president. He was, after all, vice-president of the UPA government and a Muslim candidate."
Political convention, under which the Vice President is elevated to President, too seems to be in Ansari's favour. As the Indian Express noted, only once in Congress history has the party not elevated the vice-president: that happened to GS Pathak, who was elected Vice-President in 1969 but was overlooked for President in 1974. But that happened under unusual circumstances, as a result of a split in the Congress, and Indira Gandhi's attempt to reward a 'loyalist' Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed ahead of Pathak. Ahmed was to return the favour when he signed Indira Gandhi's proclamation of Emergency in 1975 without a twitch.
There were four other occasions when the Vice-Presidents were not elevated, but each time it happened owing to a change of governments.
There's one other consideration that weighs on the minds of Congress leaders: the fact that Samajwadi Party leader had initially not been cold to the idea of elevating Ansari, even derisively dismissing the notion of "naukarshahs" (bureaucrats) occupying high office. The Congress fears that the BJP may seek to capitalise on Yadav's stand to embarrass the Congress nominee.
But in subsequent remarks, however, the Samajwadi Party had said that its stand had not yet been finalised, and had signalled that it would go along with the Congress nominee.
Of course, the final word on this hasn't been said yet. Mukherjee is to head for Delhi at noon today for key meetings. A clearer picture could emerge fro those interlocutions.