So who will be the next President? Elections are scheduled for July 2012; if Congress can get its allies to agree, through a lot of behind-the-scenes deal making, it is likely that the winning candidate will be of its choice. Two candidates seem to be front runners: current Vice President Hamid Ansari, and Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee. An interesting outcome of this would be that a victory for either would be the first time someone from West Bengal has occupied the highest office in the land.
The post of President of India, though hugely respected, is largely ceremonial with no real power. There have been few instances exerting pressure or influence on a government in any meaningful way (President Zail Singh torturing Rajiv Gandhi is a notable exception).
Attempts at consensus building across party lines prior to Presidential elections generally ensure results without controversy. The nature of the position also means there is little scope for any constituency to yield significant benefit, and election is through lawmakers’ votes; as a result, there has also been representation to a degree that might not have been achieved if subject to a popular vote. Out of 12 Presidents since 1950, there have been 4 Muslims, a Sikh, a Dalit, and a woman. Motives for selection may sometimes have been cynical (e.g. the BJP’s Abdul Kalam, or Mrs Gandhi ensuring the election of Zail Singh during the height of the Khalistan movement) but in a world where symbolism is important, the results have arguably been positive and sometimes timely. President Radhakrishnan, with ties to both the Telugu and Tamil communities, played an important role in calming tempers during the anti-Hindi movement that swept the South during the 1960s; President Singh was able to demonstrate a vision for reconciliation after the storming of the Golden Temple and the anti-Sikh carnage that swept across North India following Mrs Gandhi’s assassination. And President Kalam, not only a Muslim but also the architect of India’s nuclear program and the son of an illiterate fisherman, became an icon for a generation of Indian schoolchildren cutting across economic, and communal lines.
So who will be the next President? Elections are scheduled for July 2012; if Congress can get its allies to agree, through a lotof behind-the-scenes deal making, it is likely that the winning candidate will be of its choice. Two candidates seem to be front runners: current Vice President Hamid Ansari, and Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee. An interesting outcome of this would be that a victory for either would be the first time someone from West Bengal has occupied the highest office in the land. Ansari also has ties to UP, but if he wins, Kolkata, the city of his birth and where he spent much of his childhood and student days, will certainly claim him as its own. Ansari would be India’s 5th Muslim president; Mukherjee would be the first Bengali. What would this mean for West Bengal, and for Bangladesh? Not a lot really. The ceremonial nature of the role aside, neither is known for parochialism, and both are generally respected across party lines. And of course, the President can’t actually do anything. Mukherjee is very familiar with Bangladesh, having played a key role in advising Mrs Gandhi during the 1971 Liberation War, and having counseled Sheikh Hasina during her exile in Delhi in the late 70s, and as recently as prior to the 2008 elections. Ansari was recently in Dhaka celebrating Tagore’s birth, but kept a low profile. His work in raising minority issues – not just of Muslims but also of Sikhs, Christians, Dalits and Kashmiri Pandits – has contributed to a reputation for objectivity.
But word on the street is that another politician from West Bengal actually holds the key to the outcome. As with much of the current government’s agenda, Mamata Banerjee may end up having her whims satisfied in order to ensure any progress. Mukherjee, her former mentor, is the symbolic leader of the state Congress, and a thorn in her side. Having him as President removes his ability to play a partisan role in state politics; this could be crucial to her survival just as serious questions about her are being raised by those who were essential to her victory but cannot bring themselves to support the Left. But it also means the West Bengal Congress has its figurehead in the highest office in the land, and there are many schools and hospitals in the state that require opening prior to the next elections. The equation between Ansari and Mamata is unknown. And there are several packages she wants for West Bengal that the Center is yet to decide on. No doubt Didi will keep the government guessing about her position on Dada until the last minute. This could get exciting.