The race for the President's post has been getting complicated with every political move. It remains to be seen as to who will emerge as a clear candidate of the UPA and the NDA.
The question is whether the post of the President has always been politicised and whether the post has also devalued?
CNN-IBN Deputy Editor Sagarika Ghose took up the question with a distinguished panel on her show Face The Nation on Thursday. Following is the transcript of the discussion:
Sagarika Ghose: Hi there, yes it's a dramatic indeed riveting race to the Rashtrapati Bhawan. It's an eyeball to eyeball confrontation now between the Congress and UPA allies Mamata Banerjee and Mulayam Singh Yadav. Giani Zail Singh there who famously said if my leader told me to be a sweeper, I would pick up a broom and start sweeping. Has the post of President always been politicised, has the post also devalued? Joining us, N Ram, Managing Director, Former Editor-in-Chief, The Hindu , Ashutosh Varshney, Professor, Brown University, Contributing Editor, Indian Express, Prabhu Chawla, Editorial Director, The New Indian Express, Pushpesh Pant, Political Analyst. Let's kick it off with Pushpesh Pant, does this current crisis reminds you of the crisis that the Congress faced in 1969, when Indira Gandhi backed VV Giri as opposed to Neelam Sanjeev Reddy of the syndicate, therefore is it similar? Is it turning out to be an all out political battle in the Congress and the ally?
Pushpesh Pant: The second question first, I think it's quite obvious that there is an all out battle between the Congress and its allies, but I don't think the comparison with the past can be carried out too far, because I think when Mrs Gandhi put upfront VV Giri against Sanjeev Reddy there was an ideological dimension to it. There was a generational issue involved. There was a Congress party which was split on this. No, I don't foresee the Congress party today splitting on this ground because the Congress party is a family concern. And it is dynasty democracy within the Congress party as usual. So I don't think Sonia Gandhi can be compared either in terms of political sagacity, charisma or political will, efficiency.
Sagarika Ghose: So there is no ideological dimension here. It is pure power politics.
Pushpesh Pant: Pure power politics and I would say vested interest.
Sagarika Ghose: And vested interest. Let me bring in Prabhu Chawla here, Prabhu Chawla you were on CNN-IBN yesterday when you pointed out that when Mulayam and Mamata mentioned the name of Somnath Chatterjee, Manmohan Singh and APJ Abdul Kalam, actually the candidate was APJ Abdul Kalam, Manmohan Singh and Somnath Chatterjee were the dummy candidate. Is APJ Abdul Kalam the game changer as far as Mulayam and Mamata are concerned? They know that this is the candidate that the Congress can never accept yet this is the candidate they are insisting on. What does that mean, they are trying to isolate the Congress, they are trying to push the Congress on the backfoot, they therefore are trying to push the government down? And today the Congress also came up saying that Pranab Mukherjee is their Presidential candidate. So the Congress is saying Pranab which Mamata will never accept, Mamata is saying Kalam which Congress will never accept.
Prabhu Chawla: The question as I told on your channel yesterday that the fight is okay, whether you want the mid-term poll now or later, both Mamata and Mulayam feel that they will get more seats than they have got at the moment because if now they put together they have got 19 and 22, that is 41, they expect to take it to the logical end of 75. If they take their logical set up to putting APJ Abdul Kalam as a candidate I see it will be a very tough fight. Let me correct Pushpesh Pant, Mrs Gandhi did not declare it upfront, she proposed, you can correct me if I am wrong, she proposed Mr Reddy and then went for a vote. She proposed a candidate and then betrayed it, it was pure power politics at that time. Even now there is also power politics. Mrs Gandhi now wants Pranab Mukherjee because once his name has come up she wants him to be the President of India. Because otherwise he is a person who will be sulking as Finance Minster as well.
Sagarika Ghose: Even if it means Mamata leaves the UPA?
Prabhu Chawla: You see in politics everything is possible but what is happening by name calling, calling all sorts of things, somebody's calling she is out of her mind somebody saying something else, I don't think they can live together forever. It is a beginning of a divorce, it may happen tomorrow, it may happen day after tomorrow.
Sagarika Ghose: It is a beginning of a divorce and you are saying this is the beginning of the end of the UPA?
Prabhu Chawla: There is no UPA at the moment, even Pranab Mukherjee phrased, if all of us noted, he put it in the afternoon that the Congress and the UPA will decide the candidate. Means UPA is separate and Congress is separate. His kind of person, Pranab Mukherjee, using Congress and UPA separately. UPA as understood is United Progressive Alliance in which Congress is a leading partner. There is distinguish in UPA, obviously there is no the UPA as we think of.
Sagarika Ghose: There is no UPA and in fact if major the allies are contesting against the government in the Presidential election that necessarily would mean that perhaps mid-term poll. N Ram, Jayalalithaa in Chennai today said that the Congress has completely botched this exercise, Advani said that the Congress has completely mismanaged the Presidential poll. Do you feel that the Congress has brought this crisis to itself by failing to manage its allies?
N Ram: Yes Sagarika what fun it is. No soap opera can match this political theatre and I certainly agree with Jayalalithaa and Advani on this point, they botched it big time. But the political calculation underlying it the reading, I think Prabhu indicated it and others did as well, the reading is that when the next general election comes there is no way the UPA is making it for what's left of the UPA. In fact the India Today poll in January predicted that if the elections were held now the ruling party will get fewer than 100 seats, the will be 100 plus seats down. What will be the number, this is what staring them in the face and naturally Mulayam Singh doesn't want Congress there and if you can get Kalam who is not a Congress man decidedly then it's well and good. So it makes a lot of sense to Mulayam Singh's point of view and Mamata seems to go along with that. So you are looking at a situation where the UPA is out, the Congress is out of power that's the calculation underlying this soap opera.
Sagarika Ghose: So the calculation is APJ Abdul Kalam is the stick with which they are going to completely isolate the Congress because he is the one candidate which is acceptable to the others but will never be acceptable to the others, so as you said it could be a political master stroke for those trying to bring down the Congress. Let me put this to Prabhu Chawla, I am going to come to Ashutosh Varshney, but let me put it to Prabhu Chawla because he has spoken about this issue many times, Prabhu Chawla has this crisis shown us that the power has shifted decisively away from Delhi to Kolkata, to Lucknow, to Patna, to Bhubaneswar and to Chennai. We have Mamata Banerjee and Mulayam Singh Yadav coming to Delhi and saying, listen Sonia you are not going to get your rubber stamp President. We have the right to decide who we want in the Rashtrapati Bhawan. Is this the end of the power of Delhi?
Prabhu Chawla: Absolutely right, you saw this earlier also in 1996 when Chandrababu Naidu was coming from Hyderabad and dictating the Prime Minister of the country but now it has become much more formidable. Now the decision of the Union Cabinet are decided in Calcutta. In FDI, the government announced the FDI but it was Mamata Banerjee who reversed the decision, she has no right to reverse the decision of the Union Cabinet. What is happening now is the power has moved from the elitist Congress, BJP leader to early politician like Mulayam Singh Yadav or Mamata Banerjee or you Nitish Kumar, they are the people who represent the rural Bharat. So far from 1991 to 2010 it was India which was trying to impose its will over Bharat not the Bharat which is hitting from below and take over India. You cannot dictate the economic policies, you cannot dictate the social policies which keeps the people which ultimately get the power to the people, but ultimately somebody else becomes the Prime Minister of India who has never fought an election, there are leaders in political parties who never fight any election but decide the policies in the party. Time has come where Ahemdabad, Chennai, Bhubaneswar, Patna will decide who will be the Prime Minster of India, who will be the President and what will be the polices.
Sagarika Ghose: They will decide the policies, they will decide the candidate but what will that mean to the quality of the policies, the quality of the candidate, Ashutosh Varshney, as we showed you in our story the first three Presidents, the distinguished citizens, Rajendra Prasad, Radhakrishnan, Zakir Hussain, imminent men who led us. Do you lament that those kind of Presidents will not be possible for India because of these political considerations apply increasingly?
Ashutosh Varshney: Well this is not the first time when we have a Presidential contest in which we don't seem to have tall men or tall women, Giani Zail Singh someone mentioned in 1982, Fakhruddin Ahmed in 1984, and Pratibha Patil you know certainly didn't have any credentials, so certainly not for the first time that we are encountering personalities that don't seem to impress. With possibly mighty exception of President Kalam, so I don't think this is the first time a devaluation is taking place.
Sagarika Ghose: So the devaluation has been going on for a long time.
Ashutosh Varshney: For sometime yeah, Giani Zail Singh in 1982 and certainly Pratibha Patil no one expected to become the President of India but Giani Zail Singh in particular was an exceptionally terrible case or a terrible candidate for the President of India. Fakhruddin Ahmed did not had much to recommend much either, so this is not the first time. I want to take issue with Prabhu Chawla, I don't think this is the first time the state capital is playing such a powerful role, basically after 1989 with the rise of coalitional era in Indian political, states have been playing a role that we did not have at the time when the so called Congress era was there. And is to be expected that a coalitional era will give more power to the states. Now in this case it's the temperament and personality of Mamata Banerjee which is making it colourful than before and Mulayam Singh's move yesterday was very very surprising. Mamata Banerjee's move was not surprising but Mulayam's move was surprising because he is very strategic.
Sagarika Ghose: He is very strategic indeed. What are Mulayam's politics? Let me put this to you Pushpesh Pant, what is Mulayam's game plan here? Mamata Banerjee as Ashutosh was saying we can understand wants to keep Pranab Mukherjee out come hell or high water so she will accept anyone except Pranab, what is pushing Mulayam to support her?
Pushpesh Pant: I think it's quite clear Mulayam Singh would like Akhilesh Yadav appointed as Prime Minister of India sooner rather than later.
Sagarika Ghose: Would want Akhilesh Yadav to be the Prime Minister of India?
Pushpesh Pant: Sooner rather than later and don't think he would to leave his control of UPA at all, he would like to be indispensable for the UPA, whatever little remains of the UPA. But it is quite clear that he has Congress painted in the corner where he would want it.
Sagarika Ghose: But he is keeping his cards close to his chest though, he is not coming all guns blazing as Mamata Banerjee is.
Pushpesh Pant: No, I go back to what Prabhu said, he corrected me very right, I think we can others are keeping there cards very close to their chest also, how do we know that tomorrow Sonia Gandhi will not go back on the candidature of Pranab Mukherjee and pull out another dark horse as you said in your report earliers?
Sagarika Ghose: Right, so a possibility of a dark horse remaining but on the other hand the Congress is coming out and saying Pranab Mukherjee is their candidate. This is therefore a red rag for Mamata Banerjee. You had a point for Ashutosh Varshney.
Pushpesh Pant: Yes I think what Ashutosh was saying was very interesting but again the comparison is not very apt. because in 1968-69 when the anti-Congress wave took over and the states asserted themselves, Congress was never so weak. Now today is said to be of Shah Alam, the Mughal emperor, who went from Red Fort to Palam. And if you talk of the President Congress, the limits of their domain are from 10 Janapath to 7 RCR. So I think the Congress is defunct totally.
Sagarika Ghose: The Congress has become defunct is that what has been illustrating glaring details on 24X7 television, the exhaustion of the Congress.
Pushpesh Pant: One small point, I think this riveting race which you say is not who is going to blink first. The Congress is such a heavy squint that 'Kahi pe nigahe, kahi pe nishana', and that's what is absolutely disgusting.
Sagarika Ghose: Even this will not force any kind of rethink, any kind of dynamism. Ashutosh the sheer weakness of the leadership of Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi, is it really run out steam, not just lame duck but leg less. Let me put that to Prabhu Chawla, the complete weakness of the leadership of the Congress thoroughly exposed in his crisis.
Prabhu Chawla: You see Sagarika one thing happened in 2009 election, the Congress really bounced back, they 206 seats and I was expecting the Congress would be heading towards 250 or 260. But Mrs Gandhi fell sick and you had a Prime Minster who refused to take any decision. There was some kind of a distribution work between the Congress and the government but the Prime Minister decided to lay back because it is the Prime Minister who will ultimately run the government, he is the leader of the government. What has happened with the weakening of the government structure, weakening of the constitution of the Prime Minister, the Congress party is also suffering. Even the cabinet minister are behaving like arrogant princes, they don't listen to anybody else, ultimately it is the Congress party which has to suffer. If the Congress was able to carry the team together, in the UPA they don't talk to each other, communication skills of the Congress leader has really gone for a sick. They don't communicate to anybody, Miss Gandhi could reach out, Rajiv Gandhi was a good charmer he also could not communicate with everyone. Rahul Gandhi, after Miss Gandhi's inactiveness, Rahul is keeping himself away from the party. There is nobody keeping the UPA together. UPA coordination meeting are not even held. Prime Minster doesn't call cabinet colleague for a meeting, Council of Minister meeting when was it last held? You have got 74 council minister, I have never heard of council of minister meeting. If the leadership at the top doesn't want to communicate with the bottom then the centre can't hold.
Sagarika Ghose: The Centre can't hold and therefore want has happened with this completely weakened government, has it happened, N Ram, that the race for the Raisina Hill has become the race for 7 RCR. For Mulayam Singh Yadav, for Mamata Banerjee it has become a race to bring this government down and increase their Lok Sabha seats and perhaps take a shot at the top job. This is not about who will be the President of India, this is about who will be the Prime Minister and who will rule from Delhi.
N Ram: Yes I think that's considerable truth in its formulation because it is clear that many of the regional party and particular the SP, who was once summoned who was not an agent of the Congress to put in. But then let's not exaggerate the problem of the Congress, they still have considerable numbers, you could say as Mark Twain said, their demise is exaggerated. And Pranab is a serious candidate, in fact you know Pranab reached out to the Left, where Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and Biman Bose is reported, although it is clear that the Left is not committed itself, those numbers will be really important if it is really divisive. Pranab remains a serious candidate. Kalam I don't know, last time he said unless there was a consensus for his candidacy he would consider it. I heard you say that according to your sources he would not contest unless he is assured of victory.
Sagarika Ghose: That's what we are hearing.
N Ram: That's not guaranteed. Mr Kalam is certainly not going to risk, in my opinion, a situation where it could go either way. So let's not call the out come at this stage. It's just that it's highly divisive, the political message out of this is the decline of the Congress but let's not exaggerate that.
Sagarika Ghose: Let's not exaggerate the decline of the Congress, I think you have made a very valuable point there in all the excitement of the mid-term poll let's not ignore the fact that there are many elements in the political class who do not want that poll. However, Ashutosh Varshney, if you can hear me now, is your big take out from this crisis that has emerged, Mamata Banerjee giving her ultimatum, Mulayam Singh wanting his flesh, is this are we looking at the end of the UPA?
Ashutosh Varshney: Here is the problem with the argument that this is about 7 Race Course, suppose the elections were to held in the next three or four months, the Lok Sabha elections, what could SP possibly get from UP and what could TMC get from Bengal. Let's say 30 for Trinamool Congress and 40-45 for SP. That's adds up to 75-80 but that doesn't adds up to 275. they will have to figure out whether a third-front is possible.
Sagarika Ghose: That's a very good point. Prabhu Chawla, can a Federal Front be formed without a National Party?
Prabhu Chawla: Theoretical politics is not same as the practical politics. If they have block of 75 MPs then there will be 200 waiting to join them. One of the National party will be getting 100 seats and then why do you forget about Jayalalithaa or Naveen Patnaik, all put together, even now the Congress party it is minority government.