Now that the Finance Bill 2012 has been approved by Parliament, the great game has moved on to a new arena, the forthcoming presidential election. And once again, finance minister Pranab Mukherjee—by virtue of being perceived as the clear front runner—seems to be the focal point of the issue.
If popular perception were to translate into reality, then Mukherjee would be a shoo-in as the 13th president of India. Alas, nothing in politics is a case of WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get). Still, it is clear that the status quo is about to alter; things are unlikely to be the same in Indian politics, particularly in the ruling dispensation, after the election.
A file photo of finance minister Pranab Mukherjee
There are three possible scenarios.
One, as everyone, including the opposition, is claiming, Mukherjee is unanimously elected as the next president. Almost immediately, there is a vacuum in the cabinet and that too in a very critical ministry—and at a time when the economy is on the threshold of a potential crisis.
If the Congress doesn’t wish to disturb the present dispensation, then the best option would be to induct an outsider; former Reserve Bank of India governor and present head of the Prime Minister’s economic advisory council C. Rangarajan is an obvious choice. He has the faith and ear of the Prime Minister, a proven track record as a technocrat, and is not just apolitical but, thanks to his present job profile, hands-on when it comes to the economy.
If the Congress believes it needs a politician at the helm to ready an electorally-saleable spending agenda ahead of the crucial 2014 election, then the choice may be rural development minister Jairam Ramesh. Once again, he has all the right credentials (as an aide to the then finance minister P. Chidambaram, he played a critical behind-the-scenes role in pushing serious economic reforms, including dismantling of the administered pricing mechanism for petroleum products) and connections—both to the Prime Minister and the Gandhi family.
If Ramesh is the choice, then the government has to think of a replacement in the critical rural development ministry—which has an annual budget of more than Rs 80,000 crore—in the run-up to the election. That would mean a shuffle in cabinet portfolios and may see the induction of fresh blood.
In the second scenario, the Congress declines to let go of as valuable a team member as Mukherjee. It then decides to acknowledge—as the buzz in Delhi suggests—his importance and anoints him deputy prime minister—a post last held by L.K. Advaniwhen Atal Bihari Vajpayee was at the helm of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition.
If this happens, it would be a victory of sorts for Mukherjee, who is a walking encyclopedia of the political history of the Congress party after having started out under Indira Gandhi (who continues to remain his role model). However, it could cause serious heartburn among some of his colleagues, who harbour similar aspirations, but have never articulated them.
This would actually help the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government. It would have retained Mukherjee (without losing him to Rashtrapati Bhavan) and also acquired a deputy prime minister, who is both respected and feared by the opposition. That may well revive the fading fortunes of the government.
The third scenario is what I call the nuclear option. And the button is with Congress party president Sonia Gandhi.
Gandhi has thus far not weighed in on the debate, but anyone who thinks she can be hustled into a decision is mistaken; think back to 2004 when she gave up the opportunity to be prime minister, effecting a political masterstroke that weakened the opposition and won her tremendous political capital. Gandhi will know that the occupant of Rashtrapati Bhavan could play a key role in 2014 when no party is likely to get a majority (if things stay the way they are).
If she decides to back a different candidate and doesn’t make Mukherjee deputy prime minister, though, she will unsettle several within the party and also leave the current finance minister feeling a little miffed.
Whichever scenario plays out, life is unlikely to be the same for this government and its key players.
Anil Padmanabhan is deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org