His Excellency Pranab-babu

Arild Engelsen Ruud, IKOS, UiO

Celebrating the victory of Pranab Mukherjee (source: IBNlive.in.com)

What do you call a country that elects a village school teacher for president? A democracy! But what do you call a country that elects its finance minister for president? Hm. Unsure about that one. For the last few decades India’s presidents have normally been drawn from among political have-beens, or insignificant provincial politicians without blemishes, or individuals without a political background. Pratibha Patil had a long and ‘rather low-key’ career in Rajastani politics, APJA Kalam was a scientist, KR Narayanan was a diplomat, SD Sharma had a long career in ceremonial posts, and R Venkataraman had been Vice-President first. Pranab Mukherjee is an exception, a deviation. He was finance minister when he was launched as a candidate. He was an active politician and still powerful. So why did and active powerful politician opt for the largely ceremonial position as president? And why did the Congress project him as their candidate?

It has been suggested that Pranab Mukherjee had ambitions beyond the position of a finance minister. Anyway, finance was never really his cup of tea. He was relatively good at it, and as the jack-of-all-trades politician that he was, he could be used in any position. But word has it that his ambitions were directed towards the position of the prime minister. As a loyal member of the Gandhi-family circles, he would not stand in the way of Rahul though. Or perhaps he was just being realistic. He could not become Prime Minister as long as Sonia Gandhi preferred someone else. So, if you cannot become Prime Minister, President served as a good second alternative for the old warhorse.

Why did the Congress project him as their candidate? And in the process sacrifice their finance minister and one of the core pillars of the party? Interestingly Pranab-babu does not really have his own political home turf. He hails from West Bengal, but does not really have a following there, the Congress being quite small in the state. As opposed to politicians like Mamata Banerjee of the same state, or the likes of Sharad Pawar, the Patnaiks of Orissa, Mayawati, Mulayam and Akhilesh Singh and a host of others, Pranab-babu does not have his own following in a specific region or caste. He is a brainy man, not a man for the masses. Pranab-babu excels in smaller congregations. He is a master of negotiations, and of backroom negotiations, of mediation and persuasion.

This is the man that has been placed in the president’s chair. To say that he has been placed there is an accurate term, for the Congress spent much energy and political goodwill to get him elected. Mamata Banerjee, for instance, suffered quite a few bruises for her opposition. Sonia and her lieutenants did this in order to ensure the election of a master of negotiations for president.

Is that so bad? To have a master of negotiation as president? Surely not! Unless you look ahead to the next election, the next Lok Sabha election. Congress did very well last time around. They will not do so well this time. The incumbency factor is one thing, a string of scandals another. These may not matter much. What will matter is the lacklustre enthusiasm for the coalition among the coalition partners. It is not unlikely that the last election will prove the exception in a long line of elections that gave ever increasing support to the regional parties. It is not unlikely that the next parliament will be a hung one. With two large parties, the Congress and the BJP, and a very large number of increasingly strong regional parties. Parties with ambitions. In a country with few guidelines for how the government is selected, for how to proceed from the cacophony of a colourful parliament to the formation of a stable government. And then who will decide? Well if it isn’t the president!

We do not know the outcome of the next election, nor does Sonia Gandhi or anyone else. But there is a fair chance that in the likely case of a hung parliament a master negotiator for president will be useful. In particular if he is a Congressman in his heart.

1 Comment on His Excellency Pranab-babu

  1. I think I once read a novel by Jeffrey Archer with a similar plot: the King of England ends up deciding who gets the first shot at forming a new government with a hung parliment. I forgot the details, of course. Pranab was not in the good books of the Gandhi family after the assasination of Indira Gandhi, when he ostensibly wanted to be PM. Their relations may or may not have improved. If indeed they genuinely have it could also be a way of awarding an almost life-long loyalist.
    How exactly does it work in case of a hung parliament? In Denmark all the party leaders pay a visit to the queen to inform her of their first choice of ‘chief negotiator’, that is, the person who gets the first shot at forming a new government. All the queen ‘does’ is count the number of legislators backing one or the other candidate, and the one with the highest level of support is asked to initiate negotiations. In that sense she does not ‘do’ much. She does not really ‘negotiate’. Will Pranab be able to ‘negotiate’ more actively?

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