Who will succeed President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam? With Kalam due to give up the presidency on 24 July, political parties led by Congress are lobbying to garner support for their choices. Ashish Sharma takes a look at the names thrown up by parties keen to assess their chances before arriving at a decision on whether to back them or not.
Arjun Singh, 76
The minister for human resources development may have as many detractors as supporters across the political spectrum, but he is a political heavyweight who cannot be taken lightly in any contest. In the race for Rashtrapati Bhavan, his espousal of secularism and antipathy for the Bharatiya Janata Party will likely help him enlist support from the Congress’ allies within the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) as well as the Left parties. Singh’s bid to reserve seats for other backward classes in central government run educational institutions could come in handy as well, but his failing health could prove a handicap.
Motilal Vora, 78
Status: Dark Horse
Like Arjun Singh, Motilal Vora is a recent entry in the race. Unlike Singh, who is not universally liked within his own party, Vora has few detractors in the Congress. The biggest advantage the Uttar Pradesh (UP) governor enjoys is that he is believed to have the backing of Bahujan Samaj Party chief and current UP chief minister, Mayawati. A Rajya Sabha member, he was the governor of UP when Mayawati first became the chief minister in 1995. Vora’s candidature was reportedly discussed at an exchange between Mayawati and Sonia Gandhi, the Congress president, earlier this week.
Shivraj Patil, 71
Despite a series of terrorist attacks in Mumbai and elsewhere during his tenure, the low-profile former Lok Sabha Speaker has largely escaped controversy during his stint as home minister. The Congress veteran from Maharashtra is believed to have the backing of party president Sonia Gandhi. However, analysts point out that Patil may remain a much-needed counterweight in the government, balancing the equation between his party and Sharad Pawar, leader of the Nationalist Congress Party, a UPA chieftain who has his base in Maharashtra. And importantly, the Left parties are yet to say if they would back Patil.
Status: Dark Horse
The vice-president’s affiliation with the BJP has not come in the way of his popularity across the political spectrum. This became evident during his election as vice-president, when he secured more votes than his backers, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), commanded.
Shekhawat, a former chief minister of Rajasthan, is said to be confident that he can well repeat the performance, which is why he could stand as an independent candidate backed by the NDA.
As the presidential contest is held through a secret ballot and no party whips are issued, the vice-president could hope to upset the UPA’s nominee.
Pranab Mukherjee, 71
Status: Dark Horse
The minister for foreign affairs was the first off the block in the race to Rashtrapati Bhavan when the Left parties came out openly in support of his candidature. Mukherjee has ample political experience, with a parliamentary career spanning nearly four decades and his secular credentials have never been in doubt. The Congress politician has clarified that it is up to his party to decide on the matter. Later developments indicate that the Left parties may have jumped the gun, perhaps hurting his chances. His political acumen now seems to be working against him, as the Congress does not appear to be willing to lose his firefighting skills in the Union cabinet.
Sushilkumar Shinde, 65
Status: Dark Horse
The Union power minister’s best asset could also be his worst liability for the presidential contest. The 65-year-old former governor of Andhra Pradesh was first elected to the Maharashtra legislative assembly in 1974, and he became the state’s first Dalit chief minister in 2003. His elevation to the president’s post would serve the Congress well, especially at a time when the party is struggling to hold on to its traditional vote base among the Dalits. For the same reason, however, Shinde does not fit into the politics of the BSP chief, Mayawati, who wouldn’t like to back a Dalit from the Congress or, for that matter, any other party. And having cast her net wider to win support from the upper castes in the recent elections in UP, she is unlikely to support a Congress-sponsored Dalit candidate for president.
Manmohan Singh, 74
Status: Extreme wild card
If politics is indeed the art of the possible, one theory has it that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh could become the President and pave the way for Sushilkumar Shinde as PM.
This could give the Congress president Sonia Gandhi an opportunity for a drastic reshuffle of the cabinet well in advance of the next general election, due in 2009.
The scenario backed by nothing more than murmurs within the Congress party and speculation among political analysts, is not entirely out of question. It might just give the Congress the change of image it requires for a possible reversal in its plummeting electoral fortunes since last year. But Singh is likely to demur.
APJ Abdul Kalam, 75
Status: Very long shot
With the NDA apparently having made up its mind to support Shekhawat, and the UPA yet to finalize its choice, a second term for Abdul Kalam cannot be ruled out. Much depends on Mayawati.
It is clear that Kalam could be an option if all else fails for the Congress. So far, it doesn’t look like the popular President will stay put in the big house.