With voting along largely predictable lines, Pranab Mukherjee trounced his rival Purno Sangma in the presidential poll, results of which were announced on Sunday, to win his ticket to Rashtrapati Bhavan. It was always expected that Mukherjee would win more than two-thirds of the total votes polled. He did just that, securing 69% of the ballot and forcing Sangma to complain that without a code of conduct, the Centre influenced major regional forces like Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party (SP) and Nitish Kumar’s JD(U). Mukherjee’s tally surpassed seven lakh votes as against a little over three lakh for Sangma.
For Mukherjee, the victory fulfilled his personal ambition. Aware that he would never be made prime minister, he had always aspired for this top constitutional assignment. He made his intentions clear five years ago but at the time the Congress told him that the party would not be able to spare him. This time, when his name started doing the rounds, he reiterated that he was tiring as a politician and would not want to contest elections again in 2014. That he wanted a big superannuation gift from his party was made clear to the high command.
A diminutive politician from Bengal, Mukherjee began his career with the Bangla Congress, a lesser known party, and joined the Congress under the influence of Indira Gandhi in the early 1970s. He became a minister very early in his career and by 1982 was number two in the Congress government, managing the crucial finance portfolio. He had a misunderstanding with Rajiv Gandhi and his career suffered a jolt in the late 1980s. Later, rehabilitated in PV Narasimha Rao’s government, he bounced back and took charge of important responsibilities.
From 2004, he gained immense prominence in the UPA hierarchy and took charge as defence minister. But it was not the significance of the ministry which mattered. Mukherjee was virtually heading the government by chairing a large number of groups of ministers. He became the Congress’s chief trouble-shooter, helping the party to wriggle out of difficult situations, holding conversations with intractable allies. In subsequent years, he shifted to the external affairs and finance ministries, but his role as the party’s Man Friday did not diminish.
On Sunday, immediately after information trickled out that the votes polled by Mukherjee had crossed the halfway mark, UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi and prime minister Manmohan Singh drove over to his modest Talkatora Road residence to congratulate him. There were fireworks on the streets of Kolkata. West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee called Mukherjee to congratulate him and the new president reportedly thanked her profusely. Even if Mukherjee is the first Bengali to become president, his family and he were careful to project the pan-Indian identity of the president-elect, the fact that he has never worn his Bengali identity on his sleeve.
Mukherjee gained a few votes through cross-voting in Karnataka which left the BJP embarrassed. It seemed as though he had received about 17 unexpected votes from the state. The BJP has ordered an inquiry into the matter. There is suspicion that the unhappy mining faction led by the discredited Janardhana Reddy betrayed the party, not the Yeddyurappa group.
After the results were announced, many described it as a victory of Mukherjee himself, not of the party. This fine distinction was being made because it was doubtful if the Shiv Sena and JD(U) would have voted for any other Congress nominee with such enthusiasm. Mukherjee’s personal pull cutting across party lines may have resulted in the huge victory margin. He even won over disparate political parties like the SP and Bahujan Samaj Party. Even an initially reluctant Mamata Banerjee had to support his candidature.
Mukherjee’s departure from the Congress causes a major vacuum in the party, one that the party is struggling to fill. Over the past few days, as Sharad Pawar raised the banner of revolt, both prime minister Singh and Sonia Gandhi have worked the phones to bring the Maratha strongman around. It is here that Mukherjee always provided a buffer — a crucial role that he is no longer going to fulfil for the party. In his absence, the Congress is finding it difficult to name a suitable leader of the house, someone who has great political reach and can negotiate ably with allies and opponents.