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Ashoka Hall Of Mirrors

Monday 2 July 2007, by SAHNI*Ajai

Everyone wants to be on the Hill. But NDA or UNPA don’t have the numbers.

The arithmetic of the presidential polls has not changed, and the UPA-Left-BSP combine—and its cumulative 5,976,45 votes—are still standing firmly behind Pratibha Patil. The confidence the Congress is displaying in getting its candidate elected stems from these numbers. Even if a rival nominee were to mop up every other vote, it would only add up to 4,988,26—about a lakh less than the support enjoyed by the UPA candidate.

But that has not prevented the political theatre from continuing at a variety of venues in Lutyens’ Delhi. In the labyrinthine corridors of the country’s most prestigious address, Rashtrapati Bhavan, President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam is still dreaming of a second term, encouraged by eager aides thrusting copies of fan e-mail into his hands. Barely a couple of kilometres away, at his official residence on Maulana Azad Road, an informally dressed Vice President Bhairon Singh Shekhawat sits in a living room, where Tanjore paintings rub frames with calendar art, entertaining a group of fawning maulanas.

A short drive away, on the lush backlawns of former defence minister George Fernandes’ bungalow on Krishna Menon Marg, where workmen are busy erecting a shamiana for the official launch of the NDA candidate—each evening the BJP’s Sushma Swaraj launches her daily offensive against the Congress on behalf of the NDA, warding off all inconvenient questions from journalists. The competition from the Congress to Swaraj’s daily tirade at its HQ on 24, Akbar Road, is a comparatively sober affair, even though an air of quiet confidence surrounds the building, now that the party’s share of drama conducted at locations as diverse as the CPI(M) headquarters, Tamil Nadu House and 7, Race Course Road is over.

And finally, at Jodhpur House on Aurangzeb Road, Pratibha Patil, the woman in the eye of the storm, is camping—where the media has so far not been allowed to get past the waiting room on the ground floor.

The drama continues largely because the United National Progressive Alliance (UNPA), the newly formed alliance of regional parties, with some help from a desperate NDA, appears to have "reignited" the ambitions of incumbent President Kalam. He had categorically told NDA leaders last November and, once again, in May, that he would run for a second term only if he was the "consensus candidate". But suddenly he changed his tune on June 20: now he told UNPA leaders that he was ready to contest if his victory was a "certainty". (At the time of writing, the UNPA, after a meeting with the NDA, was yet to revert to Kalam on the "certainty" question—something that will determine whether Patil will face Kalam or Shekhawat in the presidential contest.)

Kalam’s change of heart apparently came after the UNPA’s suggestion led the NDA’s officially declared candidate, Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, to offer to withdraw from the contest if Kalam was willing to enter the fray. Kalam, sources say, feels his "personal popularity" will miraculously ensure that the elected representatives—who form the electoral college—will abandon party loyalties and help him retain his job for another five years. And evidence of his personal popularity? An e-mail inbox overflowing with the "love and affection" of the people in a country where a little over four per cent of the population have access to the Internet; and SMS polls conducted by TV channels, where the numbers polled are in hundreds, not even thousands, in a country of one billion people.

Yes, the cold facts are that Kalam can be assured "certainty" of victory only if some of the parties backing Patil either officially declare their willingness to switch sides, or worse, if big money comes into play.

If the latter were to happen, it would forever sully the office of the President, the highest constitutional job in the country.

The likelihood of any party in the UPA switching sides seems highly unlikely: the Congress has officially restated that Pratibha Patil remains their official candidate and party president Sonia Gandhi refused to meet UNPA leaders who wished to discuss their support for Kalam with her. The Left parties, who did not support Kalam’s candidature even five years ago, repeated their stand to the UNPA leaders who met them on June 21. The RJD and NCP have reiterated their support to Patil and the BSP’s Mayawati and RLD’s Ajit Singh have signed Patil’s nomination papers.

The Tamil Nadu-based parties in the UPA, the DMK and the PMK, parties which the UNPA and NDA believed could be persuaded to switch loyalties in the name of Tamil pride, have repeated they will support Patil. DMK chief M. Karunanidhi did not just play a key role in the selection of Patil, he signed her nomination papers after Kalam’s name was announced by the UNPA. Besides, as Congress sources stress, one of Karunanidhi’s prime missions these days is to launch his favourite child, daughter Kanimozhi, in Delhi’s political world. Indeed, when he called on Sonia recently, he was accompanied by Kanimozhi, who reportedly thanked Sonia for sponsoring a woman for Rashtrapati Bhavan. And if that was not indication enough of his intentions, Karunanidhi—a scriptwriter and poet of repute—has written a poetic tribute to Patil called Cherish Liberation, which has appeared in several Tamil newspapers: an English translation has been sent to Pratibha Patil! Simultaneously, PMK founder-leader Dr S. Ramadoss has stressed that there was no going back on the party’s decision to back Patil. He added pointedly, "Kalam had already indicated that he will take up educational work and not run for the second term. I hope he will not go back on this."

Given that the numbers are decidedly against the Opposition, what is the NDA’s gameplan? Clearly, it is a divided and confused house, with some of its top leaders—mainly Fernandes, Swaraj and L.K. Advani—believing that this is an opportunity to "embarrass" the UPA. Otherwise, how does one reconcile the following. First, Atal Behari Vajpayee’s statement on May 22: "I clearly told Kalam that there would be no second term and he agreed"; then, the NDA leadership’s announcement on June 18 that Shekhawat was their nominee for President; followed a few hours later by Shekhawat declaring his willingness to withdraw in favour of the UNPA candidate, Kalam; and finally, the NDA endorsing Shekhawat’s support for Kalam?

NDA sources told Outlook, "Once the BJP realised it could not breach the ruling combine, or even assure itself of the support of its own allies in the NDA, never mind the UNPA which all through has expressed its disapproval of Shekhawat, it was desperately looking for some way to avoid embarrassment to its candidate, Shekhawat. So when Kalam took everyone by surprise and expressed his willingness to contest, it seemed like an ideal exit route—back Kalam’s candidature and earn brownie points both for the sacrifice and for backing a Muslim candidate." The BJP’s calculation is that it is immaterial whether Kalam wins or not: it gets the party out of a spot and an opportunity to attack the Congress where it thinks it can hurt it—by questioning the party’s pro-minority image in the countdown to the general elections in 2009.

Hence, the double-barrelled attack: NDA’s spokespersons keep repeating: "Let the Congress answer one question—why is it opposed to Kalam?", hoping it will rattle its members.

But as Union minister of state for personnel Suresh Pachauri, one of a team of five entrusted with "managing" Patil’s election (the others are Ahmed Patel, R.K. Dhawan, Priyaranjan Das Munshi, Prithviraj Chauhan), told Outlook: "I don’t think the Congress needs to prove its secular credentials—long before Kalam, whose candidature we incidentally supported last time, the Congress had two other Muslim presidents, Zakir Hussain and Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed. Over the years, we have had three minority chief justices of the Supreme Court and 17 governors. Our record speaks for itself."

For the BJP, it has been a seriously unsuccessful campaign: for instance, on June 18 when the NDA met to decide on its presidential candidate, the vast majority of those gathered were reluctant to enter the contest. The Biju Janata Dal’s Brij Kishore Tripathi said it would be better to wait as there was no clarity; Shiv Sena’s Manohar Joshi stressed that though his party had the deepest respect for Shekhawat, it would be meeting the next day to decide its position (the next day, in a show of Maharashtrian solidarity, the Sena declared its support for Patil); the Trinamool Congress’s Dinesh Trivedi said his party had yet to meet to discuss the matter; the JD(U)’s Sharad Yadav suggested to the BJP that it should reconsider its choice. Even Vajpayee and BJP president Rajnath Singh advised caution. But the trio of Fernandes, Swaraj and L.K. Advani bulldozed an agreement on Shekhawat’s name.

A senior NDA leader told Outlook, "Many of us feel that it would be wrong to embroil the presidential election in any sort of controversy—it is the prestige of the country which is at stake. After all, this is not a mere panchayat election." He added that he was deeply concerned about the BJP’s "whatever it takes" line—even money. Indeed, political sources add that lists of MPs and MLAs—castewise—have been drawn up to identify those who are "vulnerable". But Congress sources, poohpoohing the BJP’s claims of being able to induce cross-voting, say that money cannot make a dent in this election. A Union minister said, "If the UPA candidate were to lose, technically it may not matter. But it would certainly destabilise the government. Which MP or MLA wants an election before time?"

For the newly formed UNPA, it has not been much easier. Sources said that after National Conference leader Farooq Abdullah, and retired judges Fateema Biwi and A.M. Ahmadi turned down the UNPA’s offer of being its candidate, the alliance finally turned to Kalam—expecting him to refuse as well—after which it would have announced its intention of abstaining from the presidential poll. This was the reason why AIADMK boss J. Jayalalitha did not show up for the UNPA meeting in Delhi.

So, what next? The UPA, for once, has got its act together—apart from its central team of minders, it has set up coordination committees in all the states to monitor the votes in those states. As for Patil, after all the formalities are completed on June 23, she will visit 15 states in the 25 days that remain before the elections—an election that should see the first woman in Rashtrapati Bhavan. For the Opposition, which is in disarray, these are bad times. In the coming days, if Kalam ends up saying no, then Shekhawat, who boasts he has never lost an election, will face the toughest contest of his life against a woman who, too, has never lost an election.

See online : Outlook

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