Make no mistake. Buoyed by the massive victory in four states, including Uttar Pradesh, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will use his time-tested formula to put a loyalist in Rashtrapati Bhavan when Ram Nath Kovind demits office in July.
The unmistakable signal from the BJP’s poll victories, especially in UP, is that Mr Modi will use his “4-L” formula to have his man as the next President. “4-L” stands for “loyalist, lightweight, low-profile and low-key”.
A loyalist at Rashtrapati Bhavan has immense advantages for any PM, especially with the Lok Sabha polls not far away. Rashtrapati Bhavan plays a very important role after the Lok Sabha polls in the formation of the new government. The next Lok Sabha polls are due by May 2024.
The BJP’s first brush with power at the Centre was back in 1996, when President Shankar Dayal Sharma had appointed Atal Behari Vajpayee as PM after a hung verdict.
The highlight of the 1996 verdict was that the BJP became the first non-Congress party to be the single largest party in Parliament after the failed Janata Party experiment of 1977. In that election, the Congress not only lost power but got just 140 seats in the 543-member House. It’s another story that the Vajpayee government lasted just 13 days.
No Prime Minister likes to take chances on a crucial appointment as the President when each Lok Sabha election is a different cup of tea. It is more so for Mr Modi, who likes to be seen as a “strong leader”. India’s polity had thrown up hung verdicts since 1989 till 2014 when Mr Modi became the first leader who brought his party absolute majority in the Lok Sabha, and this trend continued in 2019.
There is intense speculation in political circles on who could succeed Mr Kovind. One view was that Mr Modi may have promised the top post to BSP supremo Mayawati if she kept a low profile in the just-concluded Uttar Pradesh polls in order to benefit the BJP. Though Mayawati kept her campaign low-key and it did benefit the BJP, it is anybody’s guess how much Mr Modi can trust a mercurial leader in Rashtrapati Bhavan. Now Mayawati claims it is just propaganda against her by the BJP and has ruled out taking such a post. But the damage has already been done to the BSP.
Rajnath Singh could have been a consensus candidate for Rashtrapati Bhavan if the BJP had done poorly in UP as the defence minister has a good rapport across the political spectrum. In the new situation, however, senior leaders like Mr Singh and Nitin Gadkari should be thankful if they aren’t made a part of the Margdarshak Mandal. One should never forget that in New India’s “New BJP”, there is also a “new normal”.
One will have to see if Mr Modi again plays the dalit card by installing leaders like Karnataka governor Thawar Chand Gehlot or former Uttarakhand governor Baby Rani Maurya at Rashtrapati Bhavan. One thing, however, is clear in the Modi-Amit Shah scheme of things: that individual leaders are virtually of no consequence and what matters is how best to deliver a message to a social group or community in order to broaden the Hindutva vote bank. Every move is for a purpose, to further the leader’s agenda.
The promotion of vice-president M. Venkaiah Naidu seems doubtful. Mr Naidu may have been an ambitious man and may have swiftly shifted to the Modi camp by dumping L.K. Advani, but the PM always goes by his own priorities.
Interestingly, the RSS will have little role in suggesting names for President or vice-president as the PM has now emerged taller than the mother organisation.
It should be seen whether Mr Modi uses the presidential polls to increase the BJP’s footprint in the South, especially Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
Whatever might have been the experience of the Opposition parties, the 76-year-old Mr Kovind fitted firmly into the Modi scheme of things. While Mr Kovind was the party spokesman for some time, no one ever thought the non-controversial dalit leader who mostly kept to himself and rarely faced the media could be destined for bigger things. His choice was nothing short of pulling a rabbit out of the hat, at least that was the feeling in political circles, including those of the BJP.
Mr Modi might have taken a cue from Indira Gandhi, who had installed her loyalist Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed as President nearly half a century ago. Ahmed had issued the Proclamation of Emergency by signing the papers at midnight in June 1975 after meeting Indira Gandhi earlier that day.
After becoming Prime Minister, Mr Modi could easily do business with then President Pranab Mukherjee, who had his own issues with the Congress leadership, which never considered him a loyalist. In fact, the senior ministers with whom Mr Modi had a good rapport as Gujarat CM were Pranab Mukherjee and Sharad Pawar.
All in all, the BJP’s triumph in UP has taken all the fun out of the presidential race, making it a tame affair. The Opposition’s top agenda now is to nurse its own wounds for survival, and the presidential polls are the last thing on its mind. The Congress, Trinamul Congress and the AAP are all resigned to the fact that Mr Modi will put his own nominee as President Kovind’s successor.
The vice-presidential polls, which are also around the corner, will be child’s play for the ruling party given its growing dominance in the electoral college.