The corridors of power are again abuzz with whispers, complex calculations, and strategy, as has been the story from the time when the first occupant of Rashtrapati Bhavan was chosen.
Author Rajmohan Gandhi in his latest book Why Gandhi Still Matters: An Appraisal of the Mahatma's Legacy' says that instead of Dr Rajendra Prasad, India's first President, Mahatma Gandhi had rooted for a Dalit woman for the top job. The revelation has come at a time when the names of Jharkhand Governor Draupadi Murmu (a tribal) and former Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar (Dalit) are being speculated among possible candidates from the BJP and the Opposition camps, respectively.
The upcoming presidential election has generated considerable political heat, with the Opposition determined to put up its candidate for a face-off with that of the BJP-led NDA. After its strong showing in Uttar Pradesh's Assembly elections, the NDA exercises a hold of 48.9 per cent or 5,37,083 votes over an Electoral College of 10,98,903. It needs only a little more support to cross the halfway mark. The UPA's hold is only 17.3 per cent. While PM Narendra Modi is keeping his cards close to his chest, the Opposition is adopting a wait-and-watch approach. If the talks for a consensus candidate succeed, the July 17 election won't be needed.
Though the President's office is envisaged as apolitical in nature, the choice of candidates has most of the times been dictated by political circumstances. Rajendra Prasad had effortlessly risen above partisan politics. His successors Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Dr Zakir Hussain were both far removed from politics. But soon after Indira Gandhi became Prime Minister, things started changing.
In 1969, the VV Giri versus Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy presidential battle was bitterly fought. It was the only time when no candidate reached the required majority mark in the first count. Finally, Giri emerged victorious defeating the official Congress candidate. After the death of President Dr Zakir Hussain in office, Indira Gandhi had abandoned party candidate Reddy and backed Giri, eventually bulldozing her choice through.
Veteran Congress leader Makhan Lal Fotedar says that Gandhi, preferred to meet leaders individually and suggested different names, throwing the Opposition into further confusion. Only two presidents have been elected without Congress support — Neelam Sanjiva Reddy and APJ Abdul Kalam.
President S Radhakrishnan is also seen to have worked behind the scenes to ensure that Indira Gandhi became PM over rival claims of Gulzarilal Nanda, Morarji Desai and YB Chavan. It is another matter that relations between them later soured and she worked assiduously to ensure that he did not get a second term, sponsoring the candidature of Zakir Husain instead.
When Indira Gandhi was choosing Giani Zail Singh in 1982, she had also rejected the Opposition plea for a consensus candidate. A year later, he signed the Ordinance imposing national emergency. On the midnight of June 25, he was woken up by a messenger, rather than the PM, who as per the protocol should have called on him. Fotedar recalls that Gandhi pondered long and hard over who her final choice should be.
Then defence minister R Venkataraman and Foreign Minister PV Narasimha Rao were counted upon to placate southern political parties. But with Punjab playing heavy on Gandhi's mind, the odds were in favour of Singh.
She had selected a person who was not only loyal to her but owed his meteoric rise to the Nehru-Gandhi family. Singh was also able to create dissensions within the Akalis. But just as Punjab started heating up, distress between the Rashtrapati Bhavan and the PMO also increased. A former intelligence sleuth, who worked with Singh, said the President always suspected that rooms in the Rashtrapati Bhavan were bugged and his conversations were being taped and relayed to the PM every evening, before she retired for the day.
Gandhi chose Singh, when Sikh militancy in Punjab was at its peak. When BJP president Atal Bihari Vajpayee called on her, she raised Zail Singh's name knowing well that he is an anathema to the BJP. Vajpayee retorted: "If you want a Sikh candidate, why not Swaran Singh?"
Reeling fresh from the wounds of the 2002 Gujarat riots, the Vajpayee government nominated ace scientist APJ Abdul Kalam as presidential candidate. That is why many political analysts feel that Modi may tilt towards choosing a Dalit or a tribal woman face to prove his commitment towards disempowered communities.
Kalam had emerged as a key face in Vajpayee's move to conduct the Pokhran nuclear tests.
In 1992, then CPM general secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet called an urgent meeting of the available Politburo members. He had just received a call from the then Congress leadership seeking support for the party candidate — Shankar Dayal Sharma — in the presidential election. The hurriedly-assembled politburo told him that the vice-presidential candidate must be from the Dalit community. After a short deliberation, the Left leaders zeroed in on a Congress MP from Kerala, an LSE graduate, a career diplomat, former vice-chancellor of JNU and someone who had served as a minister in the Rajiv Gandhi government.
A politburo member, on instructions of the party leadership, went on a scooter to his home to seek consent from KR Narayanan to be the vice-presidential candidate. Narayanan won that election quite comfortably as a joint nominee of the Congress, the Left and the Janata Dal. Five years later, Narayanan became the first Dalit President of India, winning one of the most one-sided presidential elections by securing more than 90 per cent votes in the Electoral College.
The NDA under Vajpayee had almost decided on fielding then Maharashtra governor PC Alexander. He had developed close ties with Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray. The BJP expected that the Congress will be forced to back a candidate from the minority community. But Congress leaders said Vajpayee had forgotten the fact that in their party there is a high premium on loyalty. With the Congress declining to back Alexander, Andhra Pradesh CM Chandrababu Naidu proposed then vice-president Krishna Kant as a consensus candidate. But soon, the BJP realised that Krishan Kant, along with Chandrasekhar and socialist Madhu Limaye, was instrumental in the fall of the Morarji government.
The hardliners in the party put their foot down. Mulayam Singh Yadav has all these years claimed he was instrumental in convincing the BJP to back Muslim candidate APJ Abdul Kalam. But it is believed his name also came out of political exigencies necessitated by the 2002 Gujarat riots. When his name was proposed, a stunned Congress had no alternative but to back the NDA candidate. Only Left parties challenged Kalam's nomination.
In the next presidential elections held in 2007, the UPA-Left coordination committee met to finalise a joint candidate. The discussion veered towards nominating the first woman President of India. The Left proposed Rajasthan governor Pratibha Patil's name, which was readily accepted by Congress president Sonia Gandhi.
The 2012 presidential polls revolved around two regional satraps — Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mamata Banerjee. The Congress had proposed Pranab Mukherjee and vice-president Hamid Ansari as a joint UPA candidate. Banerjee and Mulayam offered three names to the UPA to choose from. In the next 48 hours, Mulayam held a series of meetings with Congress leaders. In the end, he endorsed Mukherjee's candidature. Banerjee too was left with little choice but to support a fellow Bengali. A month later, Mukherjee was sworn in as the 13th President. Hamid Ansari got another term as the Vice-President of India.
It is again time for the politicians to roll the dice. The BJP is confident that it has the numbers to ensure that Modi's choice of President makes it to Rashtrapati Bhavan.