Left finally has its say on a major political issue

By M.R. Narayan Swamy


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New Delhi : The Indian Left has scored its biggest political victory in three years by vetoing Home Minister Shivraj Patil's candidature and paving the way for Pratibha Patil to become the country's president because it knew the Congress party could not afford to ignore its wish list.

Once the Left's preferred candidate, Congress veteran and External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukerjee, was not picked by the Congress leadership, the Left made it clear privately that there was no way it would back Shivraj Patil or Karan Singh or even Power Minister Sushilkumar Shinde.

In the eyes of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) and its allies, as revealed to IANS by reliable Left sources, none of the three candidates was strong enough to take on Vice President Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, who was capable of inducing cross-voting in the ruling coalition ranks to win.

"In fact we have done the Congress a huge service by vetoing those three, particularly Shivraj Patil," a Left source privy to the decision making process in CPI-M asserted.

Specifically, the Left sources explained that they saw Shivraj Patil as a failed home minister and one who was soft towards the Hindu rightwing besides being a lightweight compared to Shekhawat.

A CPI-M Central Committee member said: "I am sorry but Shivraj Patil is a disaster as home minister. We don't even know why (Congress president) Sonia Gandhi has him as home minister. He looks very dignified and very nice in his bandhgala suit, but that is all there is to him."

The Left has always been uncomfortable with Karan Singh, one of the founders of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) in its original incarnation. As for Shinde, the CPI-M leader called him "colourless".

Significantly, the Left leaders made no criticism of any of the three publicly, simply stating that they wanted someone in the Rashtrapati Bhavan who would have sound knowledge of constitutional affairs, be secular, enjoy wide support and have the potential win the election.

Rajasthan Governor Pratibha Patil, an unassuming but veteran Congress leader from Maharashtra, fitted the bill even if she was not widely known, the sources said. "At times, anonymity can be a plus point in politics," quipped a leftwing source.

At the same time, the Left sources conceded that Sonia Gandhi's decision to discuss the presidential nominees with Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) chief Mayawati even before the Left was consulted did leave a bad taste.

"Frankly, even some UPA allies were unhappy although none of us displayed this publicly," the source explained.

The Left block of four parties led by the CPI-M provides crucial legislative support to the Congress-led UPA government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. But it has had an uneasy relationship with the government.

The CPI-M in particular did put its foot down on two major issues and made it known that it would withdraw its support to the government if decisions contrary to its liking were taken.

One related to the Indo-US civil nuclear agreement, on which Manmohan Singh intervened in parliament and pledged not to cross the Rubicon. Another was about the privatisation of funds.

"We do have a veto power because of the 60 MPs we have," said the CPI-M source, speaking for the Left. "But on most issues the choice is to go with the government even if we don't like it or withdraw support to the government. Since toppling this government will only strengthen the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party), we end up compromising on most occasions.

"The nuclear issue and pensions affair were different. There we were clear that we would take back our support to the government if it crossed the red line.

"Here, in the presidential election, the Congress and UPA could have never ignored the (108,094) Left votes. This is crucial for the Congress candidate to win. So we put our foot down over Shivraj Patil. This is what happened."