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Who will be the next President?

When Pranab Mukherjee said in his first interview after he became the President of India that he always wanted to have such a large lawn for morning walks he was only revealing the human side of his larger than life image. While one doesn’t expect the President to be flawless, the idea always is to have a person of stature in the Rashtrapati Bhavan.

Unless he gets to have another term, Mukherjee may not have his morning walks in the large lawns after July 2017. The speculations about who will be the next occupant have already begun. The post of the President of India is like that of the Queen of England. Persons with dignity and characters, who have lived a controversy-free public life without any political bias ought to occupy it. In over six decades, persons of great stature like Dr. Rajendra Prasad, Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, Dr. Zakir Hussain and Dr. APJ Adbul Kalam have occupied the coveted post. But along with them there are some names which figure in the list we would rather like to forget about.

Pratibha Patil was under a cloud when she was nominated. Her brother had been charged with murder and the apprehension was that she may use her influence in the case. Yet, she went on to become the President.

Controversies about her continued during her tenure and even after her term ended. Her name has cropped up in one of the many scams pertaining to acquiring a land, over 2 lakh sq feet, belonging to Defence and building a 4,500 sq ft bungalow in Pune while a retired President is allotted a house with a maximum area of  2000 sq ft. Her only ‘qualifications’ were that she would be the first woman President and she was perceived to be loyal to Gandhis. It was the same loyalty to Mrs. Indira Gandhi that made Giani Zail Singh declare in public that he was ready to follow her orders even if she asked him to sweep the floor. He went on to become the first Sikh President of India.

Fakhruddin Ahmed was so loyal to Mrs. Gandhi that he could be woken up at midnight to sign an ordinance proclaiming national emergency. He signed it immediately and went back to sleep.

During the Vajpayee government’s reign, BJP didn’t have enough numbers to get the presidency to its nominee P.C. Alexander as Congress was averse to him. They settled for APJ Abdul Kalam, a choice of SP’s Chief Mulayam Singh Yadav. But now BJP can choose any candidate of its choice for the President’s post. Seeing that Modi has an absolute control on the party, it is going to be his choice alone.

The first name that is making the rounds is of Lal Krishna Advani.

In fact, Union minister Nitin Gadkari had suggested Advani for President, but Narendra Modi reportedly felt that “age is a major factor”. Advani is in good health but seeing that the term is five years, Modi is right. The memory of the age factor diminishing the agility and health hasn’t still faded from the public memory.

Modi has totally sidelined Advani and the rest of old guards including Murli Manohar Joshi, Yashwant Sinha and Shatrughan Sinha.

I don’t think Modi would risk having a President with his own mind.

The diminutive ball of fire Sushma Swaraj, once perceived as the Prime Ministerial candidate, too can be the final choice. But would she make an ‘obedient’ President? Modi wouldn’t be happy with the idea of a controversial Subramaniam Swamy, either. Swamy’s name figures here because he has written about how J Jayalalitha wanted him to become the President. To quote Swamy, “In 2007, Jayalalithaa wanted me to become the President of India. I declined her offer telling her that I had a teaching assignment at Harvard University. I was also not sure about my winning chances because many political leaders were afraid of me.”

Swamy may be as unwanted now. No one wants an unpredictable and controversial person to become the President.

A more serious candidate is NCP Chief Sharad Pawar. Once in the running for the post of the Prime Minister, Pawar has vast administration experience and ‘friends’ across the party lines. Congress has been an ally for his NCP and his equation with Narendra Modi seems a major asset. It is because of this equation that BJP has virtually spared his nephew Ajit Pawar in the irrigation scam in Maharashtra and has settled only for the head of Chhagan Bhujbal. During the parliamentary election campaign Modi had often accused NCP of being the most corrupt but is on record as describing whatever he has said about the opposition parties as election rhetorics not to be taken seriously. Pawar is a ‘pragmatic’ politician and may suit Modi. But there are other candidates too. India hasn’t seen any industrialist occupying the Rashtrapati Bhavan but it may happen now. Narayan Murthy, the founder and former Chairman of Infosys, is a respected figure and whispered to be as an ideal candidate. He can make the kind of President a Prime Minister, who has radical plans – some obvious and the others unclear – would welcome. He would be supportive no matter what the PM does.

Modi may find Ratan Tata too a good choice. Why, Nandan Nilekani who had spearheaded the Aadhar project too may be in the running. He has always been a blue eyed boy for the establishment.

While Bollywood stars are considered good for campaigning, even holding portfolios, a Bollywood star as the President seems incongruous unless he happens to be Amitabh Bachchan. His name made rounds the last time but his strained relationship with Gandhis is said to have worked against him. A politically neutral Amitabh may make a good choice if he lives down wife Jaya’s activism against demonetisation.

Seeing that Modi is the Monarch and BJP in absolute control – even if they lose every election in Punjab, UP and Goa – we shouldn’t be surprised to find RSS Chief Mohan Bhagwat or even Baba Ramdev as the next President of India. And once Modi decides to make someone – even if he be Baba Ramdev – no one can change his mind. To quote Venkaiah Naidu, “It is not in his blood.”

(Mohan Deep is an eminent novelist and Bollywood biographer, based in Mumbai.)

Mohan Deep
Mohan Deep is an eminent novelist and Bollywood biographer, based in Mumbai.

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