With President Pratibha Patil all set to exit Rashtrapati Bhavan, the corridors of Parliament are abuzz with talks about a possible successor.
In the list of names doing the rounds that includes a few unexpected ones such as E. Sreedharan, former head of the Delhi Metro Rail Corp, finance minister Pranab Mukherjee is ahead of everyone, at least going by media reports. There is also an election coming up to choose the Vice President as Hamid Ansari, is also retiring in August. There will be a new deputy chairman for the Rajya Sabha too. While Ansari and Lok Sabha speaker Meira Kumar are considered to be serious contenders for the top post, governor Margaret Alva, Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Badal, Janata Dal-United leader Sharad Yadav are among the names that are taking rounds as possible vice presidential candidates. Though his term is ending soon, senior Congress leader P. J. Kurien seems keen for the post of deputy chairman in the Rajya Sabha.
Interestingly, the burden of being seen as a candidate seems to have brought some visible changes in the body language of some of these prospective candidates. In both houses, MPs say, those who are in chair have become more accommodative. Mukherjee is one of the most seasoned politicians in Parliament. Many ministerial colleagues and fellow politicians are slightly afraid of his short temper and only a few in Parliament would dare to engage in light conversation with Mukherjee, who is virtually the sole political trouble shooter in the UPA.
In his speeches in the last two years, he had always criticized the opposition for disrupting the proceedings and blocking economic reforms. However, in his recent reply to the debate on the Finance Bill, Mukherjee’s demeanour was entirely different. Not only that he kept referring to BJP leader Yashwant Sinha’s speech, he did not say a word criticizing the opposition. Mukherjee, who used to lose his temper frequently when the members disrupted the proceedings, kept his cool this time.
However, the other day he lost control when the BJP members ran to the well of the house raising slogans against home minister P. Chidambaram . Mukherjee, with a sheepish smile, apologized later to the members. Opposition and ally leaders say he has become “softer” as he is preparing to go to a “higher position.”
Mukherjee is perhaps the only leader in the Congress on whom the ruling party can evolve consensus for. If it can reach an understanding with the main opposition BJP, both the allies of the Congress, BJP and even so called third front parties including Left may agree to his candidacy. However, it is hard for him to get leave of his duties in the government and the party. Persons close to the finance minister said Congress chief has already conveyed that she has not been able to find a replacement for him. If at all Congress finds another finance minister, the successor to Mukherjee as the leader of the house is not going to be an easy replacement. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and defence minister A K, Antony are members of the Rajya Sabha. Sonia Gandhi herself taking over that post is highly unlikely . Former Maharashtra chief minister Sushil Kumar Shinde is apparently trying to be a contender.
It is important for the Congress to have a candidate who could draw support from the entire UPA as well as some of the non-UPA, non-NDA parties. The Congress, at this stage, is not keen to have a consensus candidate which means it has to compromise on the vice presidential candidate. Given the arithmetic in the Rajya Sabha, where the Congress-led UPA is in minority, the post of vice president, who is also the chairman of the upper house is very crucial for the ruling alliance to get its legislation passed. The Congress cannot risk the position by having a chairman from the opposition. So the leadership prefers a candidate who can win with the UPA and some parties’ votes. Therefore it is left with very few options.