Sunday, July 15, 2007

13th Presidential Election: Frontline

Clear choice


The possibility of the election of Pratibha Patil, the nominee of the Congress and the Left, as the 13th President is proving historic.

Pratibha Patil, the United Progressive Alliance's candidate for the presidential election, with UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi at the latter's residence in New Delhi on June 16.

THE 13th presidential election, on July 18, is expected to conclude with a historic verdict promoting, for the first time, a woman to the highest constitutional office in the country. But before that would happen, the political dimensions of the electoral process have reached incomparable proportions on several counts. To start with, the run-up to the election has witnessed one of the most rancorous campaigns in the history of presidential polls in the country. Allegations of murder, bank scams and financial irregularities as well as controversies over the interpretation of customs have formed part of this campaign. And at the centre of it is Pratibha Patil, the presidential nominee of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) and the Left parties.

Even as the issues raised against Pratibha Patil captured more and more media space with each passing day, the campaign, being advanced essentially by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the principal Opposition force, was perceived as having an element that seeks to change the traditional character of the President's office. That the campaigners appealed to members of the electoral college to transcend their fundamental political affiliations and cross-vote for its candidate, Vice-President Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, has been interpreted as an effort to create a rival centre of power to the Union government at the Rashtrapati Bhavan.

The incumbent President, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, contributed to the confusion and commotion in the preparatory stages of the election by expressing readiness to bid for another five-year term if there was "certainty" of his victory. Kalam's statement was in response to a request from the United National Progressive Alliance (UNPA), the newly formed combination of eight regional parties, including the Samajwadi Party (S.P.), the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and the Telugu Desam Party (TDP). This stance of the "People's President" shocked even his admirers because it was clear even before the election process started that the ruling UPA and the Left would not support his candidature. The President, however, did not persist with his offer and virtually announced his withdrawal from the election scene two days after he expressed his readiness to contest.

The run-up to the poll also witnessed regionalism being brought forward as one of the deciding factors in a presidential election. It was the Shiv Sena, the Maharashtra-based constituent of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) which advocated this line while deciding to support Pratibha Patil. Its leadership, including party chief Bal Thackeray and No.2 in the party Udhav Thackeray, made it clear that they were motivated by regionalism and provincial considerations in moving away from the NDA's common candidate, Shekhawat. The Shiv Sena's decision has upset the BJP and, by all indications, the 22-year-old alliance between the two parties is set to collapse. But the Sena seems unfazed. "The elevation of Pratibha Patil to the President's position is indeed a matter of Marathi pride and, at this moment, this is more important to us," Udhav Thackeray said. The BJP criticised its alliance partner's stand as it strengthened the anti-national and anti-Hindutva forces.


If one were to go by a calculation of votes that various parties have in the electoral college, the Shiv Sena's decision has tilted the scales decidedly in favour of Pratibha Patil. In the electoral college, which has a total of 10,98,882 votes, the Shiv Sena has 22,178 votes. A broad calculation is that the components of the UPA and the Left parties put together have 5.13 lakh votes; the NDA has the strength of over 3.54 lakh votes and the UNPA has about 1.05 lakh votes. The Shiv Sena's decision takes away about 20,000 votes from the NDA's basket and adds them to the UPA-Left combine's. Before the Shiv Sena switched sides, the UPA roped in the Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which came to power recently in Uttar Pradesh with a massive vote. The BSP has 62,862 votes. UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi announced Pratibha Patil's candidature on June 14, two days after eliciting an assurance of "unconditional support" from Mayawati to the alliance's nominee.

The UPA leadership was engaged in a series of meetings with the Left parties right from the last week of May to agree on a name. The Left's consistent position throughout the talks was that it would agree on the name of a political personality (as opposed to apolitical figures such as Abdul Kalam) who did not compromise on secularism and had a sound understanding of national issues and constitutional matters. Many names, ranging from Home Minister Shivraj Patil to External Affairs Minister Pranab Kumar Mukherjee to veteran Kashmir leader Karan Singh, were suggested by the Congress.

While the Left did agree on Pranab Mukherjee's nomination, the Congress backtracked as Sonia Gandhi apparently thought that the External Affairs Minister was indispensable to the government. The names of Shivraj Patil and Karan Singh were not acceptable to the Left. By all indications, the compromise reached with the Left parties ultimately inspired the UPA leadership to come up with some "out of the box thinking" and it was this that led to the "sudden and unexpected" candidature of Pratibha Patil.

Initial responses to Pratibha Patil's candidature were overwhelmingly appreciative. The fact that her candidature has opened up the possibility of a woman becoming the President for the first time in the six decades of independent India was hailed by a large number of social and women's organisations. However, a number of developments in the following days tempered this sense of elation. These included Pratibha Patil's own statements of a controversial nature and a series of exposes and allegations that came up against her relatives, including her brother.

This context, undoubtedly, gave a fillip to some fresh initiatives from the NDA and the UNPA. It was the UNPA that first took centre stage with an offensive against Pratibha Patil's candidature. Describing her nomination as a "joke played on the nation by Sonia Gandhi", AIADMK leader Jayalalithaa and other UNPA leaders proposed a second term for Kalam. A number of UNPA leaders told Frontline that the "Third Front" had only meant it as a token gesture that would create a few ripples on the election scene. So sure were the UNPA leaders about Kalam's unwillingness to contest that Jayalalithaa, who apparently mooted the proposal to give a second term to a fellow Tamilian, did not attend the meeting the other alliance leaders had with the President.

Kalam's surprise reaction

Naturally, Kalam's response to the UNPA's plea to consider a second term surprised its leadership. The President, who had made it clear to a number of NDA leaders only a few months ago that he would present himself as a candidate only if there was a consensus among all parties, qualified it by saying that "I can accept a second term of presidency provided there is certainty about this". He added that he was willing to wait for a few days for this certainty to emerge.

Although it was not stated in so many words, it was clear that Kalam's insistence on "certainty" meant only a majority in the electoral college and not a unanimous election. Clearly, Kalam's reaction gave the UNPA leadership, as well as the NDA, an opportunity to corner the UPA. The NDA also got into the act and said it was ready to withdraw Shekhawat's candidature if the UPA too agreed on Kalam's candidature.

The debate went on for a couple of days, but the UPA and the Left parties refused to budge from their position. That settled the issue and Kalam withdrew, stating, he did not want to play politics.

Following the failure of its "second term for Kalam" mission, the UNPA also failed to agree on a common agenda for the election. It was left to individual parties to take their own position in the presidential election. This has put the UNPA constituents, especially the S.P. and the TDP, in a quandary. They cannot support Pratibha Patil because the alliance had described her as a "joke". They cannot accept Shekhawat because of his strong Sangh Parivar background; the minority Muslim vote is crucial to both parties and hence they cannot be seen as siding with a leader with a pronounced Hindutva orientation. Indications are that both parties would abstain from the election. The AIADMK and the AGP may be able to accept Shekhawat's candidature for his "impartial track record as Vice-President and Chairman of the Rajya Sabha".

In terms of votes, the S.P. and the TDP constitute a sizable chunk with 58,403 and 14,744 respectively. The AIADMK has 19,280 and the AGP has 4,908 votes. This means that even a shift of a section of the UNPA vote would not dramatically alter the situation. However, the BJP, as well as sections of the NDA that are firmly with the BJP, have some other calculations.

Shekhawat, reportedly, has wide-ranging personal contacts across parties and as a veteran politician who has held important positions such as Chief Minister, Union Cabinet Minister and Vice-President, he has been of help to people from different walks of life. A senior BJP leader told Frontline: "Shekhawatji has a lot of personal IOUs to encash."

Moreover, the fact that independent Members of the Legislative Assembly and Members of Parliament account for 72,000 votes is seen as a positive factor by the NDA. According to a senior BJP leader from Uttar Pradesh, if the NDA is able to garner these independent votes en bloc and get 45 to 50 MPs belonging to the UPA to cross-vote, the UPA's historic initiative could well be upset. Since, the presidential poll is conducted through a system of secret ballot and also because party whips are not operative in this election, members can resort to "conscience voting".

NDA game plan

Former External Affairs Minister K. Natwar Singh provides a clear illustration of the potential of the NDA game plan. He is technically a Congress member of the Rajya Sabha and is obviously counted among UPA voters. But Natwar Singh was present for the filing of Shekhawat's nomination papers and has made it clear that he and his supporters (there are a few of his followers among MLAs in Rajasthan) would back Shekhawat. Natwar Singh campaigned for the S.P. in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly polls, but since he has not joined the party he is not bound by the party's principles.

Similarly, two of the BSP's Lok Sabha members, Ramakant Yadav and Umakant Yadav, have fallen out with the party and are supporting the S.P. They could adopt a pro-Shekhawat posture. On the other side, the S.P.'s Lok Sabha member, Shafiq-ur-Rehman Barq, is unhappy with the party leadership and has moved closer to the Ajit Singh-led Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), which has declared its support to Pratibha Patil.


Vice-President Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, who is contesting as an independent

The Congress has understood this situation and sought to control the damage by moving for Natwar Singh's disqualification from the Rajya Sabha. As the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha, Shekhawat would have to give the verdict on the plea. Whatever the verdict, there is little doubt that the BJP and sections of the NDA are advancing the cross-vote game plan.

The NDA game has brought to the fore the question whether the ruling combine has a right to get its "man" elevated to Rashtrapati Bhavan. There is an argument that this right "is central to the very architecture of power envisaged in the Constitution". The Constitution does not envisage the Rashtrapati Bhavan as a rival centre of power, not even a rival source of influence. If an Opposition party or a combination of parties can ensure the victory of someone other than the one favoured by the ruling combine, then it would amount to a no-confidence vote against the government.

The NDA, on its part, argues that there is no such right as has been proved in the 1969 presidential poll when the Congress leader and Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, asked her party voters to go for conscience voting. This resulted in the defeat of the party's "official" candidate, Neelam Sanjiva Reddy, and the victory of the "rebel" candidate, V.V. Giri. "There is the precedence of 1969," argue BJP leaders, "and in any case Shekhawat would make a much superior President than Pratibha Patil."

The NDA leadership knows that it does not have the numbers to get Shekhawat elected, but by turning the presidential poll into a political battle it has created some discomfiture for the UPA. And the allegations against Pratibha Patil and some of her misplaced pronouncements have only added to the discomfiture, although the lady from Maharashtra is expected to scale the victory post.


Rough ride


Allegations that have surfaced after Pratibha Patil's nomination make her candidature controversial.


Pratibha Patil with the CPI's general secretary A.B. Bardhan (centre) and Rajya Sabha member D. Raja in New Delhi.

"WHY are you coming up with the names of male politicians only? Why not a lady politician?" D. Raja, leader of the Communist Party of India (CPI) and the newly elected Rajya Sabha member, says it was this question from some leaders of the Left parties during the discussions they had with the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) leadership that prompted Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to come up with the name of Pratibha Patil as the presidential candidate. The Left found the name of the Rajasthan Governor acceptable and in less than 48 hours her candidature was announced.

By all indications, the Left had specifically appreciated her recent track record as Governor and the secular values she upheld during the tenure. She took a strong stand in April 2006 when the Rajasthan Assembly passed the Rajasthan Freedom of Religion Bill, 2006, which apparently sought to ban religious conversions, advancing the Sangh Parivar's view on this issue. Pratibha Patil returned the Bill unsigned, stating that certain clauses of it infringed on "the fundamental rights such as freedom of speech and expression, freedom of conscience and freedom to profess, practise and propagate religion".

The Government of Rajasthan sent the Bill back to her in May 2006 noting that similar anti-conversion laws enacted by Congress governments in Madhya Pradesh and Orissa 40 years ago were upheld by the Supreme Court. The government also pointed out that while drafting Article 25 of the Constitution, B.R. Ambedkar had said that it would be best to leave it to the State legislatures to make laws to regulate conversions. Pratibha Patil did not relent and sat on the controversial Bill for over a year and later sent it to President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam on June 20, a day before she demitted the office of Governor to file the nomination for the presidential election.

In a political career spanning 45 years, Pratibha Patil has occupied various positions, such as Deputy Chairperson of the Rajya Sabha between 1986 and 1988. Hailing from Nandgaon in Maharashtra, she was a member of the State Assembly between 1962 and 1985 and was the Leader of the Opposition between 1978 and 1982. Before that, she was a Minister in the Maharashtra government for 11 years. Post-1982, she was again Minister in the State for four years. She held important portfolios, including Public Health, Education, Urban Development and Civil Supplies during these stints. She was strongly tipped to become Chief Minister in 1980, but lost out to A.R. Antulay. She moved to the Rajya Sabha thereafter and was later elected to the Lok Sabha.

An important streak in her career was her loyalty to the Nehru family. In 1977, post- Emergency, she stood resolutely with the then defeated Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, in spite of the fact that her mentor S.B. Chavan and colleague Sharad Pawar had decided to part ways. The overwhelming perception in the Congress is that the Nehru family has always rewarded her for this act of loyalty and both the Governor's post and the presidential nomination are examples of this.

Whatever the fact, it could be safely said that Pratibha Patil's political career has been steady and non-controversial.

But all that changed dramatically soon after she was chosen the presidential candidate. Allegations and exposes started emerging one after the other. It all started with a controversy over remarks she made about the "purdah" system in Rajasthan. Soon accusations about irregularities in the Pratibha Mahila Sahakari Bank (Pratibha Women's Cooperative Bank) she set up in 1982 came up. Subsequently, charges were levelled against her relatives, including her brother G.N. Patil.

The remark on "purdah" was made hardly 48 hours after her nomination. It went as follows: "Women have always been respected in the Indian culture. The `purdah' system was introduced to protect them from the Muslim invaders. However, times have changed. India is now independent and hence the system should also change. Now that women are progressing in every field, we should morally support and encourage them by leaving such practices behind." Historians, Islamic theologians and even the Muslim Personal Law Board were quick to point out the anomaly in the statement.

The historian Varsha Joshi pointed out that the "purdah" system preceded the Mughal invasion. She pointed out that women were not allowed to take part in the coronation ceremonies of Rajput rulers, and that they were mostly confined to homes and that there was evidence of construction of separate "zenana" chambers for women in the Chittaurgarh fort in the 11th century. "To argue that `purdah' started because of the Mughals amounts to taking a very narrow view of history," she said. Zafryab Jilani, member of the Muslim Personal Law Board, said that it was unfortunate that a leader of Pratibha Patil's stature had fallen for the campaign of Hindutva forces.

Another remark that evoked ridicule was her reported claim that she communicated with spirits. This was apparently made at the headquarters of the Brahmakumaris Samaj at Mount Abu. She claimed that the spirit of Baba, (Dada Lekhraj, the founder of the sect) who died in 1969, entered the body of Hridaymohini `Dadiji', the present head of the sect, and that they both had a conversation.


The controversy these comments raised was accompanied by allegations of fraud against the Mahila Sahakari Bank. The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) had reportedly cancelled the licence to the bank in view of alleged financial irregularities. Those who obtained loans and waiver of interests from the welfare-oriented bank included Pratibha Patil's relatives, such as her brothers and nephews. A case has been filed against the management at the Aurangabad Bench of the Bombay High Court, and Pratibha Patil, as the founding Chairperson of the bank and later Director, is one of the 34 respondents in the ongoing case. Since her nomination, many of the depositors' families have made bold to state that the bank has mismanaged their funds.

It has also come to light that Sant Muktabai Sahakari Shakhar Karkhana (Saint Muktabai Cooperative Sugar Factory), of which Pratibha Patil is the founder-president, has been declared a defaulter for failing to repay a Rs.17.5-crore bank loan. The loan was taken in 1994. Officials of the bank claim that the loan has not been repaid although a number of reminders have been issued. In a notice sent in June 2007, the bank threatened to attach the factory's property. The factory was reportedly inaugurated by Sonia Gandhi on January 23, 1999.

Another accusation involves Pratibha Patil's brother G.N. Patil. Rajni Patil, a Professor in Jalgaon College and the widow of a murdered Congress politician, G.V. Patil, alleged that G.N. Patil, who was a rival of her husband, was behind the conspiracy to kill her husband. Rajni Patil accuses Pratibha Patil of shielding her brother.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is cashing in on these allegations. The party has printed a couple of booklets to be distributed to the electoral college. Pratibha Patil has not chosen to respond to the allegations.

However, leaders of the UPA, including Manmohan Singh, have dismissed the allegations as baseless and described them as mere mudslinging Ravi Shankar Prasad, spokesperson of the BJP, said that there was no "mudslinging" and that the "party was merely seeking an explanation from her based on information that had come out in the public domain through different sources". Prasad pointed out that the RBI had "condemned" the working of Pratibha Patil's bank in its 2003 report.

"Manmohan Singh was a Governor of the RBI. Should a legitimate question emanating from such a report be called mudslinging?" he asked. According to L.K. Advani, the BJP's Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, the Congress and the UPA should not stand on ceremony but change the candidate because the charges against Pratibha Patil were too serious.

But not all institutions linked to the Patils have a controversial angle. The engineering college in Bambari outside Jalgaon, started by Pratibha Patil, is doing well. It offers courses in information technology and is the only such institute in the area. But amid the spate of allegations it has become difficult for the Congress and the UPA to project her good work.

Talking to the media after the announcement of her candidature, Pratibha Patil asserted that she would not be a "rubber stamp President". The country would certainly hope that she would live up to that promise.


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