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It would be a grave error of judgment to look at former Lok Sabha Speaker and NCP leader P A Sangma as a wild card entry in the presidential sweepstakes. Although his name was proposed by two chief ministers, AIADMK supremo J Jayalalithaa of Tamil Nadu and BJD chief Naveen Patnaik of Odisha, who are neither part of the ruling UPA or the opposition NDA, nor have the numbers individually or together to get anyone elected as the next President of India, Sangma's candidature is not as frivolous as it seems. It's part of a carefully thought-out strategy by a group of regional satraps, some of whom are yet to reveal their hand, to manoeuvre a non-Congress, non-BJP nominee into Rashtrapati Bhavan.
The game has just begun and its contours will unfold as the date for filing of nominations draws closer in the third week of June. What is clear is that Sangma's entry has raised the stakes, turning the 2012 Presidential race from a routine exercise, held once in five years, into a trigger for a political realignment that will set the stage for the next Lok Sabha polls.
Sangma undoubtedly has the potential to upset the Congress party's apple cart as it struggles for numbers to get a President of its choice elected. The dice is loaded in his favour. Sangma is from the Northeast, a tribal and a Christian. Rashtrapati Bhavan has never had an incumbent from any of these social groups. In addition, he had an impressive stint as chief minister of Meghalaya in 1988 and won accolades from the entire political spectrum for his performance as Lok Sabha Speaker during the brief tenure of the United Front government in 1996. And to top it all, he is just 65, which would not only make him the country's youngest President ever if elected, but also lower the age bar in a field dominated by geriatrics.
The Congress is certainly rattled. This was evident from the alacrity with which it unleashed its hounds, led by its once most prominent tribal face, Ajit Jogi. He lashed out at Sangma for "playing into the hands of communal forces" and derided him for lobbying for the "high office of President". Interestingly, Jogi was flanked at his press conference by other tribal leaders of the Congress including a couple of MPs from the Northeast, which only underlined his party's desperation to blunt the Sangma challenge.
Congress conspiracy theorists believe that it's no coincidence that two CMs from outside the UPA have chosen to prop up a leader from Sharad Pawar's NCP, which is a partner in the Manmohan Singh government. It could well be part of a proxy battle by regional leaders within the UPA to squeeze the Congress, weakened by scams and allegations of non-performance, into ceding ruling space. They are convinced that Jayalalithaa and Patnaik, both of who are known to be close to Pawar, would have sounded him out informally before throwing their weight behind a member of his party. Certainly, the two CMs have much to lose politically if the move boomerangs and Pawar hits back at them. So far, although the NCP has distanced itself from Sangma, it has only spoken through its second rung leaders. Pawar himself is silent while letting stories abound that he has ticked Sangma off and warned the latter's daughter Agatha, a Union minister for state in the UPA government, not to canvass for her father. Congress strategists are on tenterhooks as they try to read the mind of a man who is known as a formidable political player.
Equally difficult to read is SP chief Mulayam Singh Yadav, who after his party's stupendous victory in Uttar Pradesh, has emerged as a critical element in the presidential contest because of his vote strength. The Congress was positively obsequious in the way it wooed him at the third anniversary celebratory dinner at PM Manmohan Singh's residence. The SP chief graciously refrained from offending his hosts when questioned by the media on the presidential election. But those who read his lips were struck by how little he gave away about his intentions. Except for declining to support a non-political person (read Vice-President Hamid Ansari, a former bureaucrat), he did not reveal any other card he may hold.
It would be naive for Congress to take Mulayam for granted in this high stakes game. The SP leader sent out a warning to this effect by getting his cousin, Ram Gopal Yadav, to attack the UPA government the day after the dinner. It was a declaration of independence in case his presence on the dais was interpreted as a signal that he was ready to sign on the dotted line.
Pessimists in the Congress are quick to recall Sonia's humiliation in 1999 when she tried and failed to form an alternative government after bringing down the Vajpayee government 13 months after it was sworn in. The main players then, they point out darkly, were the same trio of Jayalalithaa, Mulayam and Pawar.
Of course, this is 2012, not 1999, and both Sonia and the Congress are much wiser after that experience. Still, they know that they have to bargain hard with regional leaders inside and outside the UPA to get the numbers for victory this time. It has to be a two-pronged strategy. One is to keep the UPA united to consolidate the 42 per cent vote of the alliance in the electoral college that elects the President. The other is to scout for support among three groups - the SP, the BSP and the Left - to make up the shortfall of 8 per cent.
Someone likened the presidential election to a poker game. It requires nerves of steel to play and win. The Sangma move is merely an opening gambit. The real action will come later. As has happened at least twice before, today's frontrunners may fall by the wayside in the last laps and a dark horse may emerge. Any bets on who will be the winner?
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