Pranab Da leading the Presidential Race

For once, the Congress seems to have been able to get its act together on the presidential poll with its two possible candidates, Hamid Ansari and Pranab Mukherjee, running ahead of the rest of the pack.

However, the party itself can hardly be credited with this achievement. Instead, it is really a gift of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and, more particularly, of its leader in the Lok Sabha, Sushma Swaraj, whose gaffes have landed the principal opposition party in a mess.

Apart from confirming how the BJP’s leadership tangle remains unresolved, what the episode underlined was the party’s warped ideas on the subject of the next president. When Swaraj peremptorily and unilaterally ruled out the question of support for Ansari and Mukherjee, she was acting in accordance with the BJP’s conditioned reflexes of anti-Muslim and anti-Congress postures.

Her charge that the vice president lacked stature was laughable, especially in the context of the lacklustre background of the present president, Pratibha Patil, whose elevation five years ago had surprised and amused the political world since many outside Maharashtra didn’t even know who she was. “Pratibha who?” was the question which was asked. Since then, her tenure – though thankfully devoid of major controversies – has hardly enhanced her stature. India’s first woman president, therefore, will go down in history as something of a disappointment.

Swaraj’s assertion, therefore, that the far more distinguished Ansari lacked stature was odd, to say the least. Her objection appeared to have been based on the fact, therefore, that Ansari was a Muslim and, for the BJP, to straightaway endorse a Muslim candidate would go against the party’s grain.

Since she couldn’t state the obvious, she took a roundabout way of restating the party’s “secularism” by naming former president A.P.J. Abdul Kalam as a nominee. Kalam, of course, has enjoyed the BJP’s support in the past if only because he shares some of the party’s views of Indian history. He is also known for his scientific achievements and personal integrity. But, having already been president, it will be strange to elevate him to the post again, especially when he is now 81. What the suggestion showed, therefore, was the BJP’s bankruptcy of ideas and also how bare was its cupboard of possible Muslim candidates. And this, in the world’s second largest Muslim country.

It will be unfair to deny that the Congress’ calculations in choosing Ansari have nothing to do with the Muslim angle. But it acts with long practised sophistication in these matters, born of years of accommodating Muslim dignitaries inside and outside the organisation. So from the distinguished academic Zakir Hussain to the unprepossessing Mohammed Hidayatullah, to Ansari, the Congress has nurtured individuals of varying potential as followers and admirers.

If Ansari stumbles at the last hurdle, it will be due to the habitually contrarian Mamata Banerjee, who is totting up one by one her unending opposition to the Congress’ initiatives. In Ansari’s case, it is his supposed friendliness towards the Marxists which is unacceptable to the West Bengal chief minister. If there was no other alternative, she would have wondered about the impact of her opposition to Ansari on her Muslim base in the state.

But, fortunately for her, there is an alternative in Mukherjee, who can become the country’s first Bengali president if Mamata plumps for him. And, for Mamata, it will be something for which she can claim credit back home where little is going right for her at the moment.

For the Congress, it is a Hobson’s choice. The party will dearly love to install Ansari with the next general election two years away when his elevation will enable it to mobilise Muslim support. The move will also enable it to keep some parties of the Hindi belt on its side – the Samajwadi Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), and others who always wear their “secularism” on their sleeves. But the Congress is not sure whether Mukherjee’s wider acceptability – he can expect the BJP’s support as well – makes him a safer bet.

In these turbulent political times, when the Congress’ credibility is low and when it may have to run an even weaker coalition government in 2014, Mukherjee’s sharp political mind, his grasp of constitutional niceties and skills as a mediator will be of as much value inside Rashtrapati Bhavan as outside. It will also be in the fitness of things that when the young prince ascends to the throne, the old family loyalist will be there behind the scenes with his advice and consent.