The Name Game: Civil Services Mentor Magazine August 2012

The Name Game

The Indian Presidential election is a game about which political formation manages their reputation best and serves no other purpose. While the new President will take charge in little over five weeks, the intricacies of communication, reputation of probable candidates and the image management techniques used by party bosses is playing out this week. This is a lay man’s attempt to decode the current scenario and a reputation management professional’s understanding of who managed their image and how? Mamata Bannerjee’s unholy and conspiratorial grouping with Mulayam Singh Yadav and Sonia Gandhi’s strategy in isolating her and winning the support of most parties in opposition, have exposed not only the apparent fissures in the UPA coalition government but also the NDA’s inability to find a suitable candidate. NDA is now supporting Sangma who can best be described as a “borrowed candidate”. Regional parties have gone arrogant and have gone on to display power in their own bizarre way, and that doesn’t augur well for the democracy; and the two national parties are in a huddle knowing very well the power centre doesn’t lie with them anymore.

The high octave drama was good enough to break any kind of boredom. There is no disputing the fact that India’s ex finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee is an excellent choice. He has all the right credentials, and the credibility to occupy the post; even though it would mean that the Congress party would lose its seasoned trouble shooter. His likely elevation has to be welcomed. What should be condemned is the deceitful conduct of various parties in the entire episode and many more to follow till the elected representatives cast their ballot to either elect Pranab Mukerjee or former speaker PA Sangma who is supported by a truncated opposition alliance without the support of its key partners Shiv Sena and JD(U).

The alliance in opposition is supporting a candidate who never belonged to its fold, having offended two of its alliance partners namely Shiv Sena superemo Bal Thackery and JD(U) leader and NDA convenor Sharad Yadav, who have gone all out to support UPA nominee Pranab Mukerjee. And first one to announce the candidate, has gone on a silent mode on PA Sangma! Mamata Banerjee may have many faults. She is volatile and unpredictable. At times she is also unreasonable, but then which politician is not? The run-up to the presidential election has thrown interesting insights to how a politician conducts himself; treats his party; how the parties shift their stand-rather do they have any stand and logic.

Not after the West Bengal Chief Minister had ousted the Congress’s own preference for Rashtrapati Bhawan — Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee as first choice followed by Vice-President Hamid Ansari. And certainly not after Ms Banerjee and Mr. Singh had dared to include Manmohan Singh in their list of three, the other two being Abdul Kalam and Somnath Chatterjee. Ms Banerjee and Mr. Singh were in fact suggesting that the Congress change its Prime Minister, a proposal the party should have rejected instantly, without a second thought. Indeed, it should have been evident to the Congress that Ms Banerjee and Mr. Singh had dragged Dr. Singh into the presidential contest with the sole intention of unsettling and embarrassing the leadership troika of Ms Gandhi, Dr. Singh and Mr. Mukherjee. As it turned out, the ploy worked and a paralysed Congress showed itself incapable of mustering the strength and clarity required to deal with the situation.

Meanwhile, former speaker of the House of Common and an ally of the ruling alliance, PA Sangma floated his candidature breaking himself away from the alliance, kicking his principle party and has gone on to seek ”conscience votes” from the various parties. As per Sangma, his victory in the presidential race would be a “big message” to “more than 100- million tribal’s” in the country and suggested that it could help readdress tribal- elated issues. Sangma has been a seasoned politician and has been into active politics for close to four decades now; and believes that the issue of the tribal can be raised from a “passive” post! Sangma’s approach is straight from Charles de Gaulle’s book of thought; “In order to become the master, the politician poses as the servant.” If Mulayam and Mamata (M Square) were strategic enough the best thing to do would have been to reach out to Jayalalitha and Naveen Patnaik before committing this silly act. The reason for not doing that could have been Purno Sangma having been already fielded by them. But they could have really embarrassed Sonia by proposing Purno Sangma as a fourth name. The interesting development that some media outlets reported on the night of June 13th was that Pranab stating late at night that he is not interested in running for President, which turned out to be false and mere rumours.

In all this drama the BJP in particular and the NDA at large is completely isolated. What is interesting to note is the second largest party in the NDA – the JDU has shown favourability towards Pranab Mukherjee. One possible ‘real shocker’ for the media, for NDA and for the M Square could be the JDU joining the government with NK Singh being made Finance Minister when Pranab gets elevated. Thereby UPA’s reliance on both Mamata and Mulayam can be reduced drastically. Congress does not have any base in Bihar like the way they do in a small way in UP, so partnering with JDU will not hurt its absence of ambition in Bihar in the short term.

Political parties, as is their wont, play political games, whether in a parliamentary or presidential election. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, who distinguished himself as one of India’s most popular Presidents during 2002-2007, seems to have been quick to sense the designs of self-serving politicians who were seeking to drag him into another presidential contest. Often celebrated as the People’s President during his years in office, Mr. Kalam enjoys the love and affection of countless youth in the country. The octogenarian bachelor is seen as a selfless patriot standing apart from the much-derided political class. In 2002, when he decided to contest, the political circumstances were markedly different: both the major political formations, the NDA and the Congress, were with him, and only the Left parties put up a token fight. Now, with Mr. Mukherjee getting the support of even the Samajwadi Party — whose leader, Mulayam Singh, was instrumental in first proposing Mr. Kalam’s name in 2002 and floating his candidature this time around too — the presidential race is as good as over. The Left parties will decide on their stand on June 21, but no matter what, they would be averse to backing an NDA nominee even if it is Mr. Kalam.

Mr. Kalam would surely have realised he would be placing his own legacy under threat if he were to contest again. As a former President, he is taken seriously wherever he goes. On the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant issue, his views had a bearing on the broader public opinion, even if not on the local populace. If West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and the BJP wanted him as President, it was only to serve their respective political ends. The BJP will do anything to embarrass the Congress, and Ms Banerjee will stop at nothing to stay in the spotlight and project herself as the prime mover of all things. To his credit, Mr. Kalam was able to see through the motives of his supposed backers, and resist the temptation to enter the fray. In 2007, when there was a similar move to make him contest again, he had rightly stepped back as he did not want to involve Rashtrapati Bhavan in any political process. Five years on, Mr. Kalam’s statesmanship, vision and sense of his own legacy remain undiminished.

Waging a political battle using the presidential elections is another low to hit the politics in India.It’s that time again. The time when the next President of India will be elected and the lobbying, jostling and campaigning have begun. As of course, has the speculation about who will get the job. The shady drama that preceded the announcement of Presidential candidates for India by various parties has left a bad taste in the mouth of even the toughened mocking watchers of Indian politics.

Aman Srivastava