Has LK Advani, the former future prime minister, just become the former future President of India?

Neerja Chowdhury

The Bharatiya Janata Party veteran Lal Krishna Advani is now out of the race to become the country’s next President. That is an immediate fallout of the Supreme Court’s directive on April 19 that Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi, Uma Bharati and others be tried on a day to day basis in the Babri Masjid demolition case.

Hypothetically speaking, even if Advani were to be acquitted, it would be two years down the line, the time stipulated by the apex court to complete the trial, and too late as far as the selection of the President is concerned. Pranab Mukherji’s term comes to an end in July 2017.

The court’s verdict may also have far reaching implications for Uma Bharati, minister in the Narendra Modi government, who is overseeing the prime minister’s pet project of cleaning the Ganga. Faced with a criminal trial, she may have to resign as minister.

The Supreme Court’s directive comes as a set back for the veteran BJP leaders who comprise the so-called “Margdarshak Mandali” of the party but who have effectively been relegated to the sidelines since Modi took over as Prime Minister.

Whatever be their fate, the trial, on a day to day basis, will keep the Ayodhya pot boiling and keep the Mandir issue centrestage of public discourse. With the apex Court having given the clear direction that the trial must be completed in two years, the final judgment will come just before the next general elections. One way or another, the “Ram temple”, signifying the BJP’s Hindutva agenda as few other issues have done, is therefore likely to become a major plank in the 2019 polls and influence its outcome.

Leaving nothing to chance

There are many who believe that Advani was never really a serious contender to become head of the Indian Republic, deserving though his fans might think him to be of the position, being a builder of the BJP, and the senior-most of its leaders, with Atal Behari Vajpayee ailing, because Modi would never risk installing Advani in that position. Advani had opposed the elevation of Modi as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate in the run up to the 2014 elections.

But for some reason, Advani’s name had surfaced as a “possible” contender for the presidential office. Of late, Advani has been seen in photos next to the prime minister and Amit Shah, be it at Bhubaneswar recently or at the meetings of the BJP parliamentary party. The buzz was that Narendra Modi may want to give him presidentship by way of “gurudakshina” to his erstwhile mentor. For all his recent opposition, it was Advani who had stood by Modi when he had come under attack after the 2002 riots in Gujarat and the then Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee had wanted him to observe “raj dharma” and to quit as chief minister.

And now, Advani is out of the race, not because of Modi but because of the Court, after the CBI did an about- turn on its earlier position and pressed for a trial.

Trending

After its recent success in Assembly elections, particularly its landslide win in Uttar Pradesh, the BJP was only short of around 15,000 votes in the presidential sweepstakes. This gap has further narrowed after its recent bye-poll wins. But it seems the prime minister does not want to leave anything to chance, even though managing this short deficit for a ruling party, especially this one, is no big deal. The events in Tamil Nadu in the last two days – the moves to isolate Sasikala and her nephew TTV Dhinakaran, and the “merger” of the groups led by OP Panneerselvam who is seen to be close to the Centre, and Chief Minister EK Palanisamy – could have a bearing on the presidential elections, with the merged group plumping for the BJP’s nominee for the presidential post.

It is not surprising that Sharad Pawar, whose name came to the fore for President, is believed to have expressed his disinclination. The idea was publicly floated last week by veteran journalist Kuldip Nayar at a function held in the national capital to launch a book on Sharad Pawar. The event was attended by many a political personality from the opposition. Those present did not see Nayar’s suggestion as an off- the- cuff remark but as a trial balloon to ascertain the reaction it would elicit. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) leaders Sitaram Yechury and Prakash Karat, from all accounts, had explored this possibility with Nationalist Congress Party leader DP Tripathi, premised on the view that while a Congress candidate may not get the support of “non-aligned”parties like the Biju Janata Dal or Telangana Rashtra Samithi, there could be wide-ranging support for Pawar among the non-BJP parties. Even the Shiv Sena may agree to support Pawar’s candidature. After all, it had broken ranks with the National Democratic Alliance and backed Pratibha Patil because she was from Maharashtra, and again, in 2012, the Sena, had plumped for Pranab Mukherji. And today the Shiv Sena, chafing against its junior partner status in relation to the BJP, is potentially the most wayward, though the oldest, of the BJP’s allies.

As a senior, experienced politician, with links that cut across party lines, Sharad Pawar may be the weightiest candidate the opposition could zero in on. But Pawar is savvy enough to read the writing on the wall.

Another dark horse?

The prime minister’s meeting with the BJP’s allies at the end of the just concluded session of Parliament – there were 33 parties, big and small, and the dinner meeting went on till past midnight and every big and small leader was given an opportunity to speak – was an exercise to keep allies in good humour. Earlier the prime minister had also called Uddhav Thackeray for dinner to ease the tensions that exist between the Shiv Sena and the BJP. It was the Shiv Sena which played its own googly by mooting the name of “Mohan Bhagwat for Rashtrapati”, but the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief scotched the idea.

Several names have of late being doing the rounds as possible presidential choices. These include Lok Sabha speaker Sumitra Mahajan; Draupadi Murmu, a tribal woman from Odisha, and at present the Governor of Jharkhand; Najma Heptullah, the Governor of Manipur, where the BJP managed to form a government, despite not being the single largest party. The BJP brass may want to widen the party’s catchment area in 2019 by wooing Muslim women with its campaign to ban “triple talaq”. But then, it would have to worry about the dilution of its theme of “Hindu consolidation” that it has been pursuing.

Clearly the country’s next president will be a woman or a man of the prime minister’s choice, and one who enjoys a comfort level with him. He or she will probably be a “dark horse” – we have seen over the years, the names that surface early on in the game are the ones that invariably go out of reckoning because of the pressures and counter-pressures that build up against them. And that is probably why they are floated in the first place.