India's next President, Vice President: Who will be BJP's choice?

After the sweeping victory in the Uttar Pradesh state assembly, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has moved much closer to sending its choice candidate as the new occupant at Raisina Hill. The party is not keen to extend the tenure of the former Congress leader Pranab Mukherjee, and along with its ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), many top league leaders see this as an opportunity to send in its ideologue. If that materialises, an RSS ideologue will occupy the Rashtrapati Bhavan for the first time.

There is a strong faction in BJP which believes that the choice of the president should help them in building a pan India footprint before the 2019 general elections. There is little challenge, though, in arranging the numbers. As of now, both the RSS and the BJP are exchanging notes to determine their best choice. After the recently concluded assembly elections in five states, the BJP has improved its numbers in the electoral college dramatically. A back-of-the-envelope state-wise calculation done by Business Today suggests that the BJP alone has 433,182 votes and along with its allies, the number rises to 524,088. This is still 25,354 votes short of the half-way mark in the universe of 10,98,882 votes. But this gap can be bridged with help from frenemies such as the AIADMK, BJD or the JD(U). However, all will depend on the choice of the candidate.

The President's election is likely to be held in June this year, and will be followed by the election of the Vice President. By the end of April, the BJP is likely to announce its final choice for the President of India. For the position of the Vice President, who also chairs Rajya Sabha (the upper house of Parliament), all MPs vote. Out of a total 772, the BJP has 321 MPs, and along with its allies and supporters, the number reaches 395--sufficient for winning. But going by recent occurrences, one never knows which way the Shiv Sena will vote. Therefore, the BJP may need some more support from its new friends. Here are some of the choices been being discussed between the BJP and the RSS leadership, along with the pros and cons.

The Presidential race: Six key contenders

L.K. Advani
Age: 89
Plus: He is the most prominent leader of the BJP and its prime ministerial candidate in 2009. But Prime Minister Narendra Modi's rise to national prominence led to sidelining of Advani. Already his request for appointment as the Lok Sabha Speaker was overruled. Still, many think his election as the President of India can be apt for his stature.
What's not in his favour: Not the favourite candidate of the RSS. The rift took place after his controversial comments on Muhammad Ali Jinnah's commitment to secularism during a visit to Pakistan. Many in PM Modi's camp see him as a possible threat.

Murli Manohar Joshi
Age: 83
Plus: A veteran RSS ideologue and a prominent Brahmin face from Uttar Pradesh (where the BJP recorded a sweeping victory in the recently concluded assembly polls), Joshi has good rapport with the allies, as well as with the JD(U), BJD and the AIADMK. RSS leaders think he can be a good choice as their first ideologue in Rashtrapati Bhavan. Over the past two years, he has also successfully bridged the gap with PM Modi.
What's not in his favour: There is not much support for him within the party. He has always been seen as the third in command in the line of leadership hierarchy, after Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L.K. Advani.

Ram Naik

Age: 82
Plus: An old warhorse with a good stint in the UP Raj Bhawan. Naik, a former Cabinet Minister in the earlier NDA government, also has good rapport with Modi, Amit Shah and the RSS leadership.
What's not in his favour: It will be difficult for the BJP to pick him and ignore the big two also in the fray.

Ramnath Kovid
Age: 71
Plus: The BJP's best bet as a Dalit face. He belongs to the Dalit community Koli and worked extensively in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar before being elevated as the Bihar Governor. Earlier, he headed the party's Dalit base and groomed several leaders for the BJP and the RSS. At one time, the party wanted to project his as an alternative to Mayawati in UP.
What's not in his favour: He does not have backing of leaders from other communities, both in the party and the RSS. Not having an impressive tenure as the Bihar Governor is another handicap. He has been close to Home Minister Rajnath Singh, but the proximity can backfire as well when it comes to his candidature.

Thawar Chand Gehlot, Union Minister for Social Development & Entrepreneurship
Age: 68
Plus: A noted Dalit face and a Modi-Amit Shah loyalist, his elevation to the President's post can help BJP portray a pro-Dalit image, wipe out the weakening BSP in Uttar Pradesh and further extend the party's base among dalits in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Maharashtra.
What's not in his favour: He does not have much backing from the RSS. Moreover, the Sangh believes he can still deliver as a Cabinet Minister and should serve the party at the national level.

Draupadi Murmu

Age: 58
Plus: A tribal woman leader from Odisha and currently the Governor of Jharkhand, Murmu may be projected as the first tribal President of India and that too, from the BJP fold. This can help the party expand its base in the tribal areas of the country.
What's not in her favour: She may not be too keen for this position as she is eyeing the Rajya Sabha and a meaty portfolio in the Union Cabinet.

Sumitra Mahajan, Speaker, Lok Sabha
Age: 73
Plus: A woman leader and a seasoned politician from Indore. Has a strong network among politicians across party lines. She is close to both PM Modi and party chief Amit Shah.
What's not in her favour: RSS may not favour her as a choice. It is still not clear, whether party leadership is considering her bet. She may lose out to Sushma Swaraj as a choice, who has all the backing from big RSS leaders. (Swaraj is pitching for VP post, but if women president needs to be made, she can be the first choice).

Amitabh Bachchan, Actor
Age. 73
Plus: Close to PM Modi and is first choice to be the face of the government's social campaigns.
What's not in his favour: His last tenure as a politician was a disaster. RSS may veto his name. Plus his wife continues to be Samajwadi Party's MP and a bitter critic of the RSS and the NDA government.

Rajinikanth, Actor

Age: 66
Plus: A huge fan base in Tamil speaking community across the world. His name will help BJP make inroads into Tamil Nadu before 2019. With the death of J Jayalalithaa, BJP sees as an opportunity to make a dent in Tamil politics.
What's not in his favour: BJP doesn't a large cadre in the state. The party's tallest leader down south is Pon Radhakrishnan.

Office of the Vice President: The four in fray

Sushma Swaraj
Age: 65
Plus: Currently the Minister of External Affairs and also responsible for overseas Indian affairs. Reports suggest that she is keen to go for the not-so-strenuous role due to health reasons as she has recently undergone a kidney transplant. Her stint as a Cabinet Minister is rated high and she has also worked as a backroom strategist. Swaraj is active on Twitter as the minister in charge of overseas Indians. She has also gelled well with Team Modi.
What's not in her favour: After the exit of Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar--he is now Chief Minister of Goa--it is not easy for PM Modi to spare her as well. She is a key member of the team working on the China strategy and with the ongoing changes in the U.S. regime, she will be required even more.

M Venkaiah Naidu

Age: 67
Plus: Currently serving as the Minister of Urban Development and also in charge of Information and Broadcasting. Just like Swaraj, he, too, is keen to take on a lighter assignment due to health issues. A former leader of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), Naidu has firm backing of the RSS leadership.
What's not in his favour: Once again, it may be difficult for PM Modi to spare Naidu, especially when Amit Shah is working on a mission to crack South India for the BJP. Naidu is required for his oratory skills and his friends across the party line down south to make this mission successful. Naidu as a choice can work both ways.

Kalraj Mishra

Age: 76
Plus: Currently the Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSME) Minister in the Union Cabinet, Mishra has played an active role in mobilising Brahmin votes in the UP polls. He has already celebrated his 75th birthday and is keenly pushing for the Office of the Vice President as an exit route.
What's not in his favour: Not an RSS choice and most of the leaders consider him as "close" to a particular caste. His work as the MSME head is seen as a below-average performance.

Parkash Singh Badal

Age: 89
Plus: Five-time Chief Minister of Punjab and a veteran of anti-Emergency struggle, he is only the second leader outside the BJP to be considered for the top role. During the first tenure of the NDA, another Akali leader, Simranjit Singh Mann, was elected as the Vice President of India. Badal was the Union Cabinet Minister for agriculture in PM Morarji Desai's government along with Advani and Vajpayee. However, Badal's party, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) is now out of power in Punjab. The veteran leader may not contest the next polls because of his age, and can be rewarded with this office. It was only his presence in the government that led the BJP's central leadership to avoid a split with the Akalis before the assembly polls. But his exit from the state politics may enable the BJP to gradually move out of the alliance.
What's not in his favour: It will require the BJP leadership to exercise a great deal of manoeuvring to ward off other aspirants, especially when the party has comfortable numbers.