NEW DELHI: Pratibha Patil’s victory was never in doubt, and it was also inevitable that Bhairon Singh Shekhawat would lose the Presidential poll. Somewhere along the campaign it was being whispered that his candidature carried with it a suggestion of an activist President as opposed to a “pliable” or “rubber-stamp” Pratibha Patil. In other words, it was being suggested that Mr. Shekhawat would become a designated countervail to the Prime Minister, bringing an elected government to a grinding halt. This kind of role was never envisaged in the Constitution for the President, though there has never been a dearth of constitutional maulvis ready to produce a fatwa in favour of an activist President.
There was a lot of loose talk from the NDA camp as to how a Shekhawat victory would induce a titanic shift in the political alignments in the current Lok Sabha, leading to installation of a new Prime Minister in the place of Manmohan Singh. Demands of political wholesomeness and constitutional propriety ensured that this essay in Presidential overreach was rebuffed.
The Shekhawat camp’s strategy was predicated on a calculation that the contest must be used to create an opportunity for all those in the Congress or the United Progressive Alliance who have reason to feel restive or dissatisfied with Sonia Gandhi’s political persona. Sections of the Third Front could be roped in on this count. The argument was that after a “pliable Prime Minister” she should not be allowed to have a “pliable President.”
Stakes became indeed high for Ms. Gandhi. And that is why somewhere along the line, the contest became a trial of strength between the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party.
It was this unstated dimension of the contest that induced the Left to pitch in actively and enthusiastically. The Left could not, understandably, be a party to any political denouement that would provide aid and comfort to the saffron camp.
Left support solid
In the end, the UPA remained more than intact, the Left solidly supportive, two major Third Front constituents could not side with Mr. Shekhawat and cracks appeared in the NDA ranks. Whereas the Pratibha Patil campaign brought about a new bonding in the UPA, the man-with-appeal-across-party-lines produced only isolation and dissension for the BJP.
Apart from a flawed strategy, the Shekhawat candidature was doomed from the moment it became a sideshow in the BJP’s internal power struggle. Though Mr. Shekhawat continued to insist on an “independent” personality, it was the L.K. Advani camp that took over the show.
While the Vice-President and his authorised spokespersons maintained a correct and dignified stance, the BJP embarked on a strategy of converting the campaign into an all-time low in the art of name-calling and accusation-manufacturing.
Perhaps the purpose of this mud-slinging campaign was to rally behind the “SMS constituency,” that very small slice of “civil society” which demanded that Abdul Kalam get a second term. The muckrakers righteously thought that if they were able to crank up a massive revulsion for a “tainted” Ms. Patil then the “conscience vote” would find considerable traction among MPs and MLAs.
This could work except that it was overshadowed by another post-poll purpose: had Mr. Shekhawat been allowed to mount an honourable and decent campaign, he would have emerged taller in defeat, with a claim on the BJP leadership slot, so far an exclusive preserve of the Vajpayee-Advani duo.
More importantly, the BJP knew that numbers were never in favour of its “independent” candidate, therefore the contest must be taken to such a low level of name-calling that the other side would be constrained to retaliate. That is precisely what happened. It was unnatural to expect that while the Advani camp raked up Ms. Patil’s presumed aberrations over the last 30 years no one would look closely at what Mr. Shekhawat had been doing before he became Vice-President.
Mr. Vajpayee remained dignified and statesman-like in his support for Mr. Shekhawat, as was BJP president Rajnath Singh. But the Advani camp was purposefully reckless.
The outcome is for anyone to see. All the goodwill and respect Mr. Shekhawat has earned as a reasonable and fair constitutional functionary stand squandered. For this he can only thank the Advani camp.