By Amulya Ganguli
If the presidential race has become messier than any previous contest, the reason is the petty antics of the Indian political class.
First, the Congress tried to pass off its last-minute choice of the non-descript Pratibha Patil as an example of its agenda of women's empowerment.
Then, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) tried to deceive its 'secular' allies by projecting its veteran party member, Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, as an independent candidate.
And, last but not the least, the Third Front muddied the waters by making the naÃ¯ve A.P.J. Abdul Kalam believe that it sincerely wanted him to stand for a second term.
The Third Front's manoeuvres were perhaps the worst of them all for it not only dragged the president's office into needless controversy, but also showed up the widely admired Kalam as an innocent babe in the woods where Indian politics is concerned.
By the time Kalam realised that the Third Front was merely playing a game and withdrew from the contest, it was too late to undo the damage to his reputation inflicted by the self-serving politicians. Perhaps, the reports that the Third Front leaders were taken aback by his acceptance of their suggestion alerted him to their deceptive ways.
However, the fact that former Tamil Nadu chief minister J. Jayalalitha, who doesn't like to play second fiddle to anyone, allowed the Telugu Desam Party's N. Chandrababu Naidu to lead to the Third Front delegation to the Rashtrapati Bhavan should have warned Kalam that something was wrong.
Another possible interpretation for her absence was her reluctance to queer the pitch for Shekhawat, the only candidate who (she may have believed) could put up a credible challenge to Pratibha Patil. So, she apparently didn't want to complicate the situation by fielding Kalam. In any event, since the Third Front leaders did not expect Kalam to accept their offer, she may not have thought it worthwhile to go to the presidential palace.
But when she did go after Kalam's initial decision to contest, the latter had woken up to the Third Front's machinations. And when all its ploys fell apart because of Kalam's refusal, the Front virtually withdrew from the contest since its efforts to find yet another candidate like former judge Fatima Bibi might not succeed after what has been revealed about its devious ways.
The reason why the Third Front indulged in such crude tactics is not difficult to see.
After all, it is basically a group of losers – Jayalalitha, Chandrababu Naidu, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Om Prakash Chautala – all of whom were defeated in the last elections in their states. It also comprises parties that are united only by their dislike of the Congress. At the same time, they are wary of moving too close to the BJP lest it should alienate their Muslim constituencies.
In trying to field their own candidate, their sole intention was, first, to needle the Congress and, secondly, to make their relevance felt on the national stage. In choosing Kalam, their presumption was that they could exploit his popularity among the ordinary people to serve their own partisan purposes. But now that their efforts have misfired, they have begun to look like the same sorry bunch as before.
Kalam's withdrawal means that Shekhawat is back in the fray. He had earlier played the gentleman by offering to step down if Kalam agreed to contest. The former Rajasthan chief minister has been preparing for this moment for a long time, mainly by playing a strictly impartial role as Rajya Sabha chairman in order to detract attention from his Hindutva background.
He may have calculated that since he has long been regarded as a moderate in the saffron camp, along with Atal Bihari Vajpayee, he may be able to pull off this con trick.
But the fact that the saffron is unwashable must have become evident to Shekhawat when his own party, the BJP, virtually disowned him when it preferred to field him as an independent. The reason was the BJP's fear that otherwise, parties like the Janata Dal-United might not be able to support him lest it should antagonize the minorities.
Once again, the patent insincerity of the politicians is apparent in this blatant and, in a sense, ultimately useless act of dishonesty since Janata Dal-United leaders like Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar could have hardly believed that the wool can be pulled over the electorate's eyes by such attempts at deception.
After the fiasco over Kalam, it is difficult to say anything about Shekhawat's chances, especially when Pratibha Patil has become involved in several unseemly controversies.
The allegations of being a defaulter and even of shielding a criminal may not stick, but the Congress has probably realized the value of checking a candidate's antecedents before fielding him or her. The connection Pratibha Patil has drawn between the Mughals and the 'purdah' system among Hindus has also shown that the saffron interpretation of history, peddled by BJP, has had an impact on 'secular' parties as well.
It is clear by now that whoever is the winner, the presidential contest will go down in history as one of the murkiest. Not a good advertisement for the world's largest democracy.
(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at [email protected])