April 8, 2002


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T V R Shenoy

The front-runner

As the calls come thick and fast for Narendra Modi's head, one part of the political spectrum is conspicuous by its silence -- the Congress. Oh yes, the High Command has made its ritual demand for sacrifice, but the Gujarat unit of the party is not particularly vocal in backing Sonia Gandhi. The reason is simple: as Congressmen from the state privately admit, the riots in Gujarat are nothing less than certain deeply felt emotions coming to the surface. And there is nothing less that Congressmen want than assembly elections in the current polarised climate.

The embarrassment felt by the Congress party's Gujarat unit is an emotion that the rest of the party feels when it comes to another election -- that of the next President of India. It is early days yet, but there seems to be a consensus building up around P C Alexander, currently the governor of Maharashtra. Just as Gujarat's Congressmen shall neither openly support nor oppose Narendra Modi, Sonia Gandhi seems to be tongue-tied on Alexander.

Before examining the reasons for that reluctance, let us see who is backing Governor Alexander. As it turns out, practically everyone bar the Congress and the Left Front.

Bal Thackeray's Shiv Sena and Sharad Pawar's Nationalist Congress Party cannot stand each other, but the two great rivals in Maharashtra cordially back Alexander. Across the peninsula, those other legendary opponents, the DMK and the AIADMK too have informally indicated their support for him. The Bharatiya Janata Party would probably prefer one of its own, but the party would be comfortable enough if Alexander were to succeed K R Narayanan in Rashtrapati Bhawan.

Given this ability to make the lion lie down with the lamb, why is it that Alexander's candidature raises hackles in the Congress? After all, his history is that of a man who has been marinated in the Congress ethos; he has served three Congress prime ministers -- Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and Narasimha Rao -- in various capacities. So why does the Congress resist him?

The party cannot afford to say this openly, but it suspects that the choice of Alexander is part of a conspiracy. If a Christian becomes the President, won't people think it is too much for another Christian to be a potential prime minister as well? It seems a bit nutty -- not to mention paranoiac -- but that is Sonia Gandhi's court for you!

The Congress is also suspicious of Alexander because of the men backing him, the Nationalist Congress Party above all. Its president, Sharad Pawar, left the parent party because he hated the idea of being led by a 'foreigner'. His colleague P A Sangma walked out of the Constitution Review Committee because the other panellists refused to back his quest to bar foreign-born Indians from the highest offices in the land. "Would such men back a man for President unless they had received private assurances about his views on such matters?" is the question that troubles some of the men around Sonia Gandhi.

However, the Congress is not in a position to voice these doubts openly. For one thing, it is irrelevant in that the Congress does not have the numbers to block Alexander even if it wants to. Assuming that the National Democratic Alliance partners stick together, they can push Alexander into Rashtrapati Bhawan. Which will leave the Congress in the worst of all worlds -- shown up as impotent in its enmity and with a miffed man as the President of India...

This leaves the Congress groping for excuses to oppose Alexander without actually seeming to oppose him. Some Congressmen are wondering if it is really fair to have one South Indian succeed another, especially when both are from Kerala. Others wonder whether one former bureaucrat should succeed another (K R Narayanan was a foreign office man). Both excuses are true enough -- it would be unheard of to have men from the same state in succession -- but they are, somehow, not particularly convincing arguments.

What about the Left Front? Well, the Marxists would, ideally, prefer that K R Narayanan take up a second term. It is open to question, however, whether he is willing to stand for re-election. He celebrated his eighty-first birthday in February, and the strain of office will tell on anyone, leave alone someone born in 1921. I cannot imagine President Narayanan offering himself unless it were a unanimous decision, and that is exceedingly unlikely.

This puts the Left Front -- never admirers of Alexander at the best of times -- in a piquant position. Kerala is one of their last bastions, and the last assembly and Lok Sabha polls indicated that the Communists are on a slide. Can they really afford to oppose the election of a Christian from Kerala?

The National Democratic Alliance leadership believes that it has a good thing going in the candidature of P C Alexander. He was a better than average governor in Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra during troubled political times. He was a good administrator when he was in Delhi. Neither the Congress nor the Marxists can afford to oppose him.

Nothing is certain in politics. There is definitely no shortage of potential candidates. Farooq Abdullah has openly proclaimed his desire to be the next President, and so has his fellow Kashmiri, Dr Karan Singh. That maverick lawyer-politician Ram Jethmalani too is in the fray. And Vice-President Krishan Kant sees no reason why he shouldn't get the nod (as Venkataraman, Sharma, and Narayanan -- his three immediate predecessors as vice-president -- did.) But all other things being equal, and in the absence of any sensational events, I think we may see P C Alexander as the next President of India before the summer is out.

T V R Shenoy

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