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Preparing For 2017.

India, Jan. 11 -- "A week is a long time in politics," former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson is supposed to have said almost 50 years ago. But someone who has taken retirement from active politics seems to be preparing for a major national event in July 2017, which could impact India's national politics thereafter.

Looking back at 2016, many of us would admit that the debate on intolerance should have started a good many months before it actually did. The year began with debates on 'ghar wapsi' and the correctness of the Union Government trying to impose 'good governance day' on Christmas. But by then, parishioners of Dilshad Garden and some other places in Delhi had personally experienced religious intolerance after churches were attacked, burnt or desecrated.

Trade Union leader Govind Pansare was shot dead, weeks later, and in August rationalist M M Kalburgi was shot dead too. But it took the killing of Mohammed Iklaq on false allegations - that he had consumed beef after slaughtering a calf - for the public to realise that there was a general feeling of hatred and intolerance in at least certain parts of the country. Fear is something that cannot be wished away by statistics. But even statistics on riots and other incidents matched the perception in 2015.

But protests against intolerance received inundated coverage in the media only after President Pranab Mukherjee spoke up against intolerance and on the need for inculcating tolerance and adhering to India's centuries' old plurality. It was not a one-off remark. He kept emphasising it over and over at public and private functions, at international and personal functions.

At his home town during Durga Puja, Mukherjee said: "Try and understand each other and preserve different identities of each other... We can see that in the idol of Goddess Durga, different, seemingly disparate, forces co-existing... co-existence of these increase ties within society and its capacity to move forward... We must maintain social harmony and respect and promote tolerance and co-existence. This has happened through the years and that is why India has survived for so long."

Mukherjee wound up hoping, "Mahamaya, the combination of all positive forces, would eliminate the Asuras, or divisive forces." One needs to be politically naive to only see a spiritual message here. The President was only doing his duty as first citizen, especially since Prime Minister Narendra Modi refused to condemn Iklaq's or other killings that symbolised intolerance, while the PM's twitter handle found time to greet Mauritius and Madagascar.

Mukherjee's message was acknowledged by the political brass. Modi told an election rally in Bihar to listen to the words of wisdom of the President and not to practise violence even if he (the PM) exhorted them to. His appeal was unconvincing. It looked like the verbose PM had very little advice to offer on tolerance.

But Mukherjee had passed the test. He showed he was no rubber stamp. As a practitioner of realpolitik for more than half a century, Mukherjee was entrusted with solving complex problems that beset the United Progressive Alliance since 2004. It was only natural for him to expect the Congress leadership to hand him the premiership at least in UPA's second stint. But while Sonia Gandhi preferred Manmohan Singh to continue, Mukherjee started making plans of his own. He was no longer interested so much in solving the problems that UPA-II faced. He realised that his reward lay in not serving the Congress president but looking for it himself.

It is no coincidence that most of the problems that UPA-II experienced began simultaneously. The old guards were pulling in one direction, Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi and his team in another direction while the RSS-led movements were beginning to chip away at the Manmohan Singh establishment that looked discredited and directionless. What the Government missed was political acumen that someone like Mukherjee could bring to the UPA table. He had by then revealed his plans to politicians across the aisle.

Speculation had it that Trinamool Congress' Mamata Banerjee's public proclamation after a secret discussion with Sonia Gandhi that Congress' first choice for President was Pranab Mukherjee and second Hamid Ansari was a game-plan to force the Gandhis to accept Mukherjee as Congress' candidate. Mukherjee had worked his way and was the favourite among all parties, including the BJP, but the Gandhis preferred Ansari. The BJP is believed to have told Mukherjee that if the Congress was not willing to back him, he could contest as an independent candidate and it was willing to support him. Wise counsel prevailed in Congress in the end. That was in 2012.

Mukherjee seems to be getting ready to position himself as the pole opposed to the BJP and has been cultivating each and every political force opposed to the BJP. Maintaining ties with the likes of Sharad Pawar is not difficult for him, given the NCP leader's proclivity to sail in different boats. Mukherjee's position as the President has given him unfettered access to politicians of all hues. JD(U) leaders Nitish Kumar and Sharad Yadav share a warm rapport with him as much as AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal, who used to target Mukherjee during his days of agitation.

Leaders of Shiv Sena and Shiromani Akali Dal, BJP's partners, and leaders of NDA-friendly parties like BJD and AIADMK, too have a high regard for Mukherjee. Needless to mention that leaders like Lalu Prasad, Karunanidhi and Mulayam Singh too would be willing to support Mukherjee if he throws his hat into the ring to contest the 2017 Presidential election. Then there are parties like the TRS, which wants to maintain a good rapport with the NDA. The President's attempt to attend a yajna organised by TRS leader Chandrasekhar Rao caught media attention only because he went back following a fire at the yajna site. None asked why the President of India was interested in attending a private yajna conducted by a politician.

While retaining his stature as head of state, Mukherjee has been quietly nurturing his political contacts. But a lot will depend on the assembly elections to West Bengal, Assam, Tamil Nadu, Kerala in April-May, and the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections in 2017. Only the party positions post these polls will give a clear picture of the Electoral College for 2017. If BJP fails to win enough MLAs, Mukherjee could become the first President after S Radhakrishnan to contest a Presidential election. The run-up to the Presidential race, a year from now, could turn interesting if Mukherjee is able to notch up the numbers. After all, Rashtrapati Bhavan is the only frontier that has remained beyond RSS' reach.

( abey.kay@gmail.com)

Published by HT Syndication with permission from Indian Currents.

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Publication:Indian Currents
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Jan 11, 2016
Words:1129
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