Arun Jaitley chairing a GST Council meeting in New Delhi yesterday. His stint as Finance Minister has not been a rewarding one. Pic/PTI
My advice to Prime Minister Narendra Modi would be to make Finance Minister Arun Jaitley the next President of India. There are several reasons. One, whoever Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah select will be president because their side has the requisite votes. (Like the Americans, we don't have direct voting; state and central legislators are the voters, each with proportional weightage.) This is particularly true after the recent win of three-quarters of Uttar Pradesh's Assembly. Also, the parties ruling Tamil Nadu, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh are sure to play ball with Modi. Whoever the Opposition fields will be nothing more than a token candidate, if it comes to that.
Two, Modi and Shah want a president from their cohort. Despite all the bluster about the 2019 election being in the bag, both Modi and Shah know this chance may not pop up again in their lifetime. Thus, leaders of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) are also furiously confabulating on the presidency. There is no chance that the names you may have heard during the past two years are in the mix, be it Amitabh Bachchan, Sharad Pawar, or even 'Metro Man' E Sreedharan. It is wishful thinking.
While consulting the Opposition, the BJP recently told the Left parties that RSS members do not contest elections. So RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat is out. Nonetheless, Modi wants a similarly dedicated soldier of the Right in Rashtrapati Bhawan to smoothen his agenda of Constitutional change, be it abolishing Article 370 (which gives Jammu and Kashmir special status) to renaming India. Also ruled out, however, are senior BJP members despite their lifelong service to the parivar, like LK Advani or Murli Manohar Joshi. Senior ministers in Modi's Cabinet could, however, be candidates.
These include Social Justice Minister Thawar Chand Gehlot, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Home Minister Rajnath Singh. Gehlot belongs to a scheduled caste, so he would logically be a shoo-in, considering how the BJP's success in UP rested on fragmenting and co-opting a chunk of the SC vote. Rajnath Singh has always been perceived as being overly ambitious (and famously got an earful over his son's perceived nepotism). Sushma has been an Advani loyalist, and despite having a hefty portfolio, her work is cannibalised by National Security Advisor Ajit Doval; she is reduced to rescuing Indian citizens tweeting from around the globe.
My bet is on Jaitley. He has forever been part of the parivar. He began politics in the 1970s with the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP); as a law student at Delhi University he was jailed during the Emergency (he and senior journalist Prabhu Chawla were then pals). He is perhaps the most acceptable face of the BJP for the Opposition; even Sushma reminds Congress chief Sonia Gandhi of past slights and electoral battles. He has deep contacts in the media: evidence the recent controversy around a major newspaper's executive editor who interfaced with Jaitley to fix bureaucratic postings. Jaitley is also a friend of the proprietor of a pro-Congress Delhi-based newspaper.
By the same token, however, Jaitley's popularity within his own party is not 100 per cent. He was a rare loser in the 2014 Modi wave. He is perhaps the only BJP leader who would make the rank-and-file cross-vote in a presidential poll.
Jaitley is reportedly keen to leave government. As Jaitley's predecessor in North Block, P Chidambaram pointed out recently, being finance minister is an 18-hour job and being defence minister is an 18-hour job, but the day has only 24 hours. Also, the finance stint has not been a rewarding one. Demonetisation, as Modi's own supporters now concede, was not a success; recent agrarian unrest is attributed to it. The Goods and Services Tax was supposed to simplify taxation but is already the world's most complicated GST. His budgets will never be considered in the same stratosphere as Manmohan Singh's 1991 Budget or Chidambaram's 1997 Budget. Modi might have got rid of former Reserve Bank of India Governor Raghuram Rajan, but the world blames Jaitley for it. In short, not a glorious tenure.
At 64, Jaitley is a young politician with an old body: he had heart surgery in 2005 and bariatric surgery in 2014. Like another of his predecessors (and current incumbent) Pranab Mukherjee, Jaitley may like to seize the opportunity to write his political career's historic final chapter. His chances are not dim. Despite being an Advani acolyte for over two decades, Jaitley promptly jumped ship to Modi's side when the former Gujarat Chief Minister, in 2013, started moving decisively to take control of the party. Such loyalty rarely goes unrewarded. And a President Jaitley could use his legal experience to justify whatever he does if 2019 should throw up a hung Parliament. Modi never had an easier choice.
Aditya Sinha's crime novel, The CEO Who Lost His Head, is available now. He tweets @autumnshade Send your feedback to email@example.com
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