Aditya Sinha: Congress can't even pick its battles

Jul 03, 2017, 06:06 IST | Aditya Sinha

With no chance of winning either way, Congress would have done better to field Hamid Ansari for president, rather than a token Dalit

PM Narendra Modi and Vice-President Hamid Ansari before the GST roll-out on Friday. Ansari knows he’s not going to be nominated to a third term by Modi. Pic/PTI
PM Narendra Modi and Vice-President Hamid Ansari before the GST roll-out on Friday. Ansari knows he’s not going to be nominated to a third term by Modi. Pic/PTI

There is no more bankrupt an idea than that of nominating Meira Kumar as the nearly-combined Opposition candidate to be India's 14th President. Given the BJP's numbers in the electoral college and the support promised by the ruling parties of three important states in the South, there was no chance of an Opposition candidate winning, even if it had been an as out-of-the-box a candidate as the late APJ Abdul Kalam (and no such candidate would anyway have participated in a losing contest). The raison d'etre of Ms Kumar's candidacy is that the main Opposition party, the Congress, wants a symbolic fight against ruling party candidate (and Bihar Governor) Ram Nath Kovind. As Kovind is a Dalit, the Congress put up a token Dalit of its own.

Partymen were at pains to point to Ms Kumar's credentials as a former diplomat, former minister and former Lok Sabha Speaker. It is a lame argument. Ms Kumar inherited the political legacy of her father, Babu Jagjivan Ram. He was a recognised Dalit leader in the Congress. On her own, she is an elitist and has zero idea of the modern Dalit experience. She is a political lightweight unable to win an election in Bihar unless the non-Congress parties allow it. Nothing in the Parliamentary record distinguishes her as an epochal Speaker. Even Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar was unpersuaded by the candidacy of this non-resident Bihari. Personally, she is an early land-grabber in Lutyens Delhi, squatting in the house allotted to her father and posing it as an unofficial memorial. (The only way this sham will end is if BSP chief Mayawati becomes prime minister and throws Ms Kumar out.) Indeed, if the Opposition wanted a genuine Dalit for the presidency, then it ought to have consulted Mayawati (she herself obviously would not be interested in a retirement job).

The Congress need not have contested this election. It could have offered the ruling BJP a return to a convention of earlier times wherein the ruling party chose the President and the opposition selected a vice-president, after quiet consultations. It's likely, however, that the cussed leadership of the BJP would have told the Congress to take a hike. There is also the chance, nonetheless, that it would have liked a consensus for the presidential poll. After all, the presidency was a grand prize it was seeking. And the BJP, better than anyone else, knows that a vice-president need not be elevated to Rashtrapati Bhawan once his/her term is over. Even a 'liberal' PM like AB Vajpayee led Vice-President Krishan Kant up the garden path in 2002, by first privately promising him the presidency, only to snatch it away at the last moment by proposing Kalam's name. Krishan Kant died a few months later of a broken heart.

The Congress pulled a similar stunt in 2012 when it denied a promotion to Vice-President Hamid Ansari and instead nominated Pranab Mukherjee to the post. Mukherjee essentially end-gamed Congress chief Sonia Gandhi into proposing his name, overruling West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee's objections. It was a murky entry to Rashtrapati Bhawan by the quintessential Congress trouble-shooter, who had shrewdly foreseen the rise of then Gujarat CM Narendra Modi and decided he'd better secure himself a sinecure. Hamid Ansari was far better suited for the job than Mukherjee, who in the 1980s was infamous for two things: for being Indira Gandhi's hatchet-man with regard to turmoil in several border states, including Assam, Punjab and J&K; and for being finance minister at a time that Dhirubhai Ambani's Reliance made incredible strides in polyester fibre yarn import, thanks to rules that were oddly suspended and reinstated to suit Reliance. If such a backroom boy can become President of India, then something is broken in our politics.

It would have been fair to elevate the former diplomat and a man with a full-term's experience as vice-president; and now Hamid Ansari has two full terms under his belt. He is a secular Indian, upholding the ideals of the Republic's founding parents. He is an eloquent vice-president, unrattled by this government's boorishness. Ansari knows he's not going to be nominated to a third term by Modi. And if the Congress was interested in an authentic symbolic contest, not a pseudo-identity one, then it should have nominated Ansari — he would have had the support of the communists as well as large chunks of the Opposition. Even Nitish would have had to think thrice before pre-emptively announcing his support to Governor Kovind.

A battle between Kovind and Ansari might have transcended the identity contest that the Congress has already flubbed. It would have been the actual ideological battle that Ms Kumar has spoken of. The Congress might have won, even in defeat. But it can't even properly fight that war these days.

Aditya Sinha's crime novel, The CEO Who Lost His Head, is available now. He tweets @autumnshade Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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