NATIONAL

U.P. poll result may decide the next President

NEW DELHI, JAN. 20. That the outcome of the Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh will be important as a pointer to the relative strength of the major political formations has been written about extensively. And the point that it would strengthen or erode the credibility of the ruling combine at the Centre, too, has been made. What has not attracted the public attention is that it will have a bearing on the Presidential election, due later this year. This, however, is very much in the mind of party strategists. Senior leaders of political parties suggest, in informal conversations, that the moves for the choice of the next President will begin only after the Assembly poll, notably in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab.

This is because the picture of the electoral college will be clear only then. As is known, the electoral college consists of 1) the elected members of the two Houses of Parliament and 2) the elected members of the Legislative Assemblies of the States.

To ensure uniformity, the value of the vote of the electors varies from State to State - it is computed, taking into account the State's population and the number of seats in the respective Assemblies. Thus Uttar Pradesh had - and will continue to have, despite the bifurcation of Uttaranchal - the highest value of votes, while Punjab is in the medium category.

Before 1969, the Congress, which was in power at the Centre and at most of the States, had a dominant majority in the electoral college, and as such, the victory of its nominees for the President's post used to be a foregone conclusion.

In 1969 - in the wake of the split in the Congress - the contest for the top post became a thrilling affair, with its outcome remaining uncertain till the last moment.

The defeat of the official Congress candidate, N. Sanjiva Reddy, at the hands of V. V. Giri, backed by the Indira Gandhi faction, which had broken away from the official organisation, was a major table-turning event. It helped her to project her followers as the main Congress with the official group withering away after a while.

The pattern varied in subsequent elections but there was one constant factor - major political parties avoided forcing a contest. In 1974, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, in 1977, Sanjiva Reddy, in 1982, Giani Zail Singh, in 1987, R. Venkataraman, in 1992, Shankar Dayal Sharma and in 1997, K. R. Narayanan were elected after nominal contests. Major parties chose to be discreet and did not stake their prestige.

In the present electoral college too, none of the major formations could be sure of a safe majority. If the BJP-led coalition is in power at the Centre and its constituents control some States, the Congress rules a much larger number of States. How the outcome of the Assembly poll in Uttar Pradesh (and Punjab) changes the line-up in the electoral college will be important.

The present balance may change slightly in favour of the Opposition parties (as a whole) but is unlikely to give a safe margin to one side or the other.

This may induce caution on their part, apart from other factors, because none of them would like to acquire the image of a loser which is certain to stick till the next general election. This in-built compulsion may drive major parties into working for consensus. However, the Assembly poll results could improve the bargaining position of those who fare well.

In terms of personalities, it is premature to be specific. The guessing game, though muted, has been on. Will Mr. Narayanan have a second term? In the past, the first President, Dr. Rajendra Prasad, had this honour.

Will the Vice-President, Kishan Kant, be elected to the top post? In the past, there have been several instances of such an elevation, though in two cases the Vice-Presidents did not make it to the top.

Will the BJP, along with the allies, work for an eminent non-party person? Those relishing speculation talk of the possibility of the Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, being fielded for the top position. One guess is as good or as bad as another.

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