Presidential win a boon to
Congress Sudha Ramachandran
BANGALORE - The victory of Pranab
Mukherjee, the United Progressive Alliance's
candidate in the presidential election, will evoke
a sigh of relief from the Indian National
Congress, the party that heads the ruling
coalition. It has crossed a critical bump on the
road to the general election in 2014.
Congress has seen few election victories over the
past year. Mukherjee's will therefore provide a
much-needed morale boost. More important, although
the president's post is largely a
ceremonial one, he can play a
significant role at the time of the formation of
the next government, especially in the event of a
fractured mandate - the scenario that is most
likely in 2014. He could tilt the scales in favor
of a party or coalition by inviting it to try
forming the government first.
Congress will be relieved that it has a friend in
Rashtrapathi Bhavan, the presidential house, to
give it a leg up in 2014.
Mukherjee is a veteran Congressman. He will be
India's 13th president. He was finance minister
before he became the UPA's presidential nominee.
Besides holding the Finance portfolio several
times, he has headed key ministries including
Defense and External Affairs and has served too on
the boards of the International Monetary Fund and
the World Bank. He was the Congress'
troubleshooter, a person who has friends in every
Mukherjee's victory was expected.
Besides support from all the UPA coalition
partners - even the ever-troublesome Trinamool
Congress came around to voting for him after some
theatrics - he managed to garner the backing of
the Communist Party of India (Marxists) (CPI-M) as
well as the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan
Samajwadi Party (BSP). Importantly, the
presidential election saw some key constituents of
the opposition National Democratic Alliance (NDA),
which is led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP),
such as the Shiv Sena and the Janata Dal (United)
(JD-U) vote for Mukherjee.
presidential election has indicated that UPA chief
and Congress president Sonia Gandhi's skills in
alliance-building have not dimmed. She has been
able to get sworn enemies, the BSP and the SP, the
JD-U and the Rashtriya Janata Dal, as well as the
CPI-M and the Trinamool, on to the same platform.
While coalition-building in a general
election is different from winning support for a
candidate in a battle for the presidency, through
Mukherjee's decisive victory Sonia has signaled
that her skills in stitching together an alliance
remain intact. These are likely to come in handy
in the 2014 general election.
ruling coalition has been floundering from one
crisis to another. Its image has been badly
battered by a string of corruption scandals. Its
failure to curb price rises has undermined its
credibility. Indicative of its dipping popularity
is its poor performance in a string of assembly
Recent elections in Uttar
Pradesh - a state that accounts for a fifth of the
seats in the lower house of Parliament - saw the
Congress put up an abysmal performance. Even its
star campaigners, Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi,
failed to impress voters. The road to power in
Delhi, it is often said, goes through Uttar
Pradesh. The debacle there prompted political
pundits to write off the Congress' chances in
Such predictions have been belied by
Mukherjee's strong showing. The support the
Congress was able to drum up for him indicates
that two years ahead of the general election, it
is still "advantage Congress".
the upturn in the Congress' fortunes is not a
statement on its merit.
If it is
attracting allies, it is only because the
opposition NDA is in utter disarray. From an
alliance that once commanded 24 parties, it is now
down to just seven. And the number could fall
further as general elections near.
possibility of the controversial and polarizing
chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, being
projected as the BJP's prime-ministerial candidate
could result in allies like the JD-U and the
Telugu Desam Party (TDP) parting ways with the
NDA. It was under Modi's watch that the
anti-Muslim pogrom of 2002 was carried out.
While he has won three assembly elections
in a row and is expected to win another in
December, whether the NDA or even the BJP will
hold on if he is their prime-ministerial candidate
At this point, however, it is
not the tattered NDA that the Congress needs to
fear but a possible Third Front that includes
powerful regional parties like the SP, Trinamool
even the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). On July
19 even as voting for the president was in
progress, serious trouble bubbled over for the
Congress when a key ally, the NCP, threatened to
pull out of the government. NCP chief Sharad
Pawar, who heads the Agriculture Ministry, said he
was putting in his papers because his party was
annoyed with the Congress' failure to consult
coalition partners in making key decisions.
While the Congress is skilled in building
coalitions, it is unable to work with other
constituents as allies of a coalition. Hence the
unilateral decision-making. The party is still
uneasy with coalition politics and considers other
constituents as subordinate entities.
the Congress is to have a fighting chance of
retaining power in 2014, it will need more than
coalition-building skills to save it. It will have
to win enough seats in the election in the first
place to be in the driver's seat for building a
coalition. That will require an improvement in
governance immediately if it is to win back
support of voters. Many feel that this is unlikely
so long as aging and incompetent leaders continue
to head ministries.
On July 19, soon after
casting his vote in the presidential election,
Rahul Gandhi told reporters that he was ready to
play a "more active role in party and government".
This came close on the heels of a comment made by
Law Minister Salman Khursheed that Rahul was not
accepting "functional responsibility". "Until
now," he said, "we have only seen cameos of his
thought and ideas like democratizing elections to
the Youth Congress."
Hitherto Rahul has
been involved with party organizational matters
and reviving the Congress' youth and student
wings. He has refused to take on ministerial
responsibilities, prompting commentators to say
that while Rahul's initial refusal to take on such
positions was understandable, his continuing
avoidance of responsibility and reluctance to lay
out his ideas before the public, eight years after
he stepped into politics, is untenable.
an editorial in the influential English-language
daily The Hindu observed: "If he is the
heir-apparent, as the entire party thinks he is,
and he is to be projected as a prime-ministerial
candidate in 2014, he must end his wanderings
through the thicket of the party organization and
take on concrete ministerial responsibilities ...
[He needs to] demonstrate to the people that he
can actually administer, as a minister, some of
the small but important infrastructure programs of
the UPA government."
reshuffle is reportedly in the cards, Rahul is
expected to be appointed a minister. Prime
Minister Manmohan Singh is expected to use the
opportunity to push out some of the deadwood in
his cabinet to include younger leaders.
Making Rahul a minister would not by
itself improve the government's performance or
boost the Congress' electoral chances. It could in
fact trigger rebellions from the allies. Still, if
it marks the beginning of a process of lifting the
party out of a state of directionless drift, then
it can hope to recover at least some of the
credibility it has lost.
Ramachandran is an independent
journalist/researcher based in Bangalore.
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