Praying for a Miracle in India’s Presidential Race
Nirmala Ganapathy – Straits Times
New Delhi. India’s former finance minister Pranab Mukherjee has the numbers stacked in his favor in the race for president, which will be decided by secret ballot on Thursday.
But his ride from Parliament to the presidential palace may not be as smooth as he expects, if challenger P.A. Sangma is to be believed. The tribal leader, a former speaker of the Lower House, is hoping the electoral college will choose him.
“I believe in miracles. That is the reason we all believe in God,” said Sangma, although he stands to get only 38 percent of the votes as opposed to Mukherjee’s 60 percent. “We go to church, temples and mosques asking God for those miracles to happen.”
While the post is largely ceremonial, the President does have the final word on legislation and plays a crucial role in the formation of a government when no coalition gets a simple majority – as is expected to happen at the general election in 2014.
The electoral college of 776 members of parliament and 4,120 members of legislative assemblies will have an eye on that contest when they vote on Thursday.
Sangma, who quit the Nationalist Congress Party last month, a Congress ally, has the backing of the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which did not want the Congress coalition to have a walkover.
“It is a matter of principle to field a candidate and we are certainly working hard to ensure the victory of the party,” said BJP leader Nalin Kohli.
In India’s fractured political arena, the last time a president won by consensus was in July 1977. Even then, Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy was elected unopposed as no one else had filed a nomination for the post.
The Congress is now hoping to make news by winning by a large margin. Senior leaders like Home Minister P. Chidambaram predict that more than 60 percent of the vote will go to Mukherjee.
“The only element of surprise is going to be the size of the victory margin,” Congress spokesman Manish Tewari said.
Even rebellious ally and Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee, who refused initially to support Mukherjee, came around on Tuesday, announcing her party’s decision to support the Congress candidate.
“We did not have a choice. We are supporting him individually. It is a political decision,” said Banerjee, whose support has boosted the numbers for Mukherjee.
But, the veteran, who has been a key political figure in successive Cabinets of Congress prime ministers – from Indira Gandhi and her son, Rajiv Gandhi, to P.V. Narasimha Rao and Dr Manmohan Singh – has left nothing to chance. He has travelled across the country, seeking legislators’ support.
The 76-year-old is the first political heavyweight headed for the President’s house with vast experience in politics, including troubleshooting between various political parties, a skill expected to come in handy during general elections.
Analysts are also watching the presidential election for signs of alliances to come ahead of the 2014 elections.
“The Congress is making alliances with small and regional parties, even BJP allies like the Shiv Sena… This shows the BJP is actually in worse condition than the Congress. If political parties felt the BJP was coming in 2014, some of them would move towards the BJP. But that doesn’t seem to be happening,” said Uttar Pradesh-based political analyst Badri Narayan Tiwari.
Still, Sangma, 64, a colorful politician whose daughter Agatha is a minister in the Manmohan Singh government, remains upbeat, even drawing parallels with US President Barack Obama.
As he told a gathering of women journalists recently: “If an African-American man can become the President of America, why can’t an Adivasi (tribal) become the President of India?”
Reprinted courtesy of Straits Times