The Race for Raisina Hill

JUL 15 –

In four days, on July 19, India will get a new head of the state. That person will most likely be Pranab Mukherjee, the veteran leader of the ruling Congress party. He has garnered a large chunk of support across the party lines. Backed even by the Janata Dal (United) and Shiv Sena—crucial partners of the opposition bloc National Democratic Alliance—Left parties, regional juggernaut Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party, Mukherjee is set to obtain almost 60 percent of the total votes of the electoral college. Ruling partners, except Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress, have extended support to Mukherjee, though efforts to convince this mercurial Bengali leader continue.

Former speaker PA Sangma, who is also on the race to Raisina Hill (the place which houses the Presidential palace), is backed by the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party and crucial regional forces Shiromani Akali Dal (Punjab), AIADMK (Tamil Nadu) and Biju Janata Dal (Orissa). But this support will amount to just half the votes Mukherjee is set to get during the presidential poll.

While Mukherjee—respectably called Pranabda—is set to add a new laurel to his distinguished political career, this presidential poll has drawn unprecedented attention, concerns and discussions across the Indian political spectrum.

At first, Congress, especially its chairperson Sonia Gandhi, did not want to lose Mukherjee because he was the only troubleshooter who can fix the problems of the government and party, and bring adversaries on board. His role would have been even more crucial, especially at the time when government is in defensive mode due to its failure to check rampant corruption, economic woes, bad governance and weak decision-making processes.

Sonia was hence reluctant to send Mukherjee to the Raisina Hill. If the reports are to believed, it was Mukherjee’s uneasy relationship with current Gandhi family which was also at the helm behind such reluctance.

But later, when it looked difficult to select a person who could garner support across the party lines and who is favourable for Congress, Mukherjee became the clear frontrunner. This time, Sonia also found it difficult to deny Mukherjee, as he himself had expressed interest for the presidential post. Prior to this, Sonia had overlooked him twice—in 2004 and 2007—when he expressed interest for prime ministership and presidency, respectively. Whatsoever the bitter history, Mukherjee finally got his due. Another important aspect of this presidential poll is linked with the parliamentary elections slated for 2014. Given the fractious polity and declining popularity of ruling party Congress, many pundits agree that no party can get a majority in 2014 elections. Lack of a clear winner will mean that forming a coalition government will be even more difficult. In such situation, though being largely ceremonial, president’s role will be crucial as he or she is the authority who calls the parties to form government according to the constitution. This presidential poll has also shown ample indications that political alignments among the coalition partners could change the equation in 2014 parliamentary elections. Though it would be too early to project the structure of such political equation, parties are sharply divided within their respective coalitions on the presidential polls.

On the other hand, the new president has an immense challenge in boosting the image of Raisina Hill, which has really been marred by controversies during the incumbent Pratibhadevi  Singh Patil’s tenure. Patil, who many critics portray as the rubber stamp of the government, broke the records of past presidents with highest number of foreign junkets. Allegations of nepotism were also rampant. Mukherjee, who has long experience of governance and constitution related works, is hoped to revive the honour of President’s office to a new height.

Mukherjee’s Nepal links Mukherjee’s selection as president is destined to hit the political engagement between New Delhi and Kathmandu since he used to be the only cabinet minister of current government who was directly involved in Nepal policy. Some reliable sources ironically used to share that New Delhi’s Nepal policy is no longer looked by South Block; rather,  it’s coordinated between North Block (which houses the Finance Ministry and Mukherjee was the Finance Minister before he was the candidate for presidential post ) and Lainchaur ( Indian Embassy in Kathmandu). While the need for political engagement between New Delhi and Kathmandu, as well as its pros and cons, are the issues to ponder, with Mukharjee’s departure from politics, the bureaucracy will now be more influential in formulating India’s Nepal policy. His personal relationship with Nepali leaders had, to a large extent, helped discussions on bilateral concerns in a candid way. His close relationship with Nepal’s President Rambaran Yadav is also worth mentioning here. With Mukherjee’s elevation to the country’s highest post, there are hopes that the bilateral relationship will also ascend to a new height. No Indian president after KR Narayanan in May 1998 has visited Nepal. It would therefore be a milestone in the Indo-Nepal relationship if Mukherjee visits Nepal during his tenure as President. Given Mukherjee’s intimacy with Nepal, it’s possible that he might just choose Kathmandu as his first foreign stop.

This article appeared in July 15 issue of The Kathmandu Post:



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