Saturday 18 May 2002

Sonia to Vajpayee: Anyone but Alexander (Rediff)

Last month, Congress President Sonia Gandhi requested a meeting with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who -- as he has always done with the lady -- promptly obliged. Her message was urgent: the Congress would support any candidate as the eleventh President of India but Dr P C Alexander, the governor of Maharashtra.

Were, as a face-saver, the party to be given the vice-presidential slot, Sonia would ensure Congress backing for Bharatiya Janata Party MP Dr L M Singhvi or former Rajasthan chief minister Bhairon Singh Shekhawat. Why, even Vice-President Krishna Kant was preferable to Dr Alexander, the mild-mannered administrator who had served Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi for decades, and even named his first child four decades ago after Jawaharlal Nehru.

In 1995, in (a very different) Times of India, this correspondent had said Sonia wanted to become prime minister of India, and that P V Narasimha Rao's refusal to stand down after two years in office (which Sonia had hoped he would do as a gesture of loyalty to the new Empress of the Congress party) would result in open war with her. At that time, my analysis had been disbelieved. Sonia was considered just a simple Indian wife, tending to the 'family' trusts and ensuring that the legacy of the Nehrus was preserved. It took the dismissal of Sitaram Kesri as Congress president to show how wrong these individuals were.

The next year, Sonia encouraged J Jayalalithaa to break away from the BJP by promising to support an alternative government led by a non-Congress leader but containing Congress ministers. As soon as the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam supremo withdrew support to the BJP, Sonia became unavailable on the telephone to the very individuals she had been importuning for weeks to bring down the Vajpayee regime. Most of them realized her game plan only when television channels showed a smiling Sonia claiming -- erroneously as it turned out -- she had the 272 MPs needed to form a government. For two years she lay low, but by mid-2001, she was back to planning a second attempt at toppling the Vajpayee regime, this time with the help of that 1978 veteran, Kamal Nath

Prime Minister Vajpayee, it is understood, rejected Sonia's offer and made it clear that Dr Alexander was being considered as a Presidential candidate. The Maharashtra governor has an excellent track record besides a reputation for avoiding politicking. His two sons are both professionals, not businessmen or politicians. While the elder works for the Asian Development Bank in Manila, the younger son lives in India.

Vajpayee need not have been surprised by Sonia's plea. In January, she had assembled a war council comprising party leaders Arjun Singh, K Natwar Singh and Ambika Soni to veto Dr Alexander's candidature. Natwar Singh visited Rashtrapati Bhavan several times, requesting President K R Narayanan to contest a second term, telling him that Dr Alexander was out of grace with Sonia.

Thus far, it is learnt the President has refused to sully his dignity by agreeing to a contest with Dr Alexander, should the latter be the National Democratic Alliance nominee. Except for India's first President Rajendra Prasad, no other President has been granted a second term at Rashtrapati Bhavan.

President Narayanan is in poor health, a muscular ailment preventing him from discharging his duties. Moreover, the President's dislike of the BJP and affinity to Sonia is no secret, a factor that may have weighed with that party in rejecting pleas that he be given a second term.

Despite three meetings with Narayanan to persuade him to contest, Natwar Singh has thus far drawn a blank. The Communist parties are also trying to convince Narayanan to contest a second term, while former prime minister I K Gujral and some Andhra Pradesh leaders are working on Vice-President Krishna Kant's behalf. One powerful media house is rooting for Dr Singhvi, former Indian high commissioner to Great Britain.

The NDA has the advantage in electoral arithmetic. Together with the Telugu Desam Party, the AIADMK, the Nationalist Congress Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party, the NDA has a 126,000 vote margin over the Congress, Samajwadi Party, Rashtriya Janata Dal, the Left, and other political entities. The NDA and its friends have around 66,000 votes more than the 50% of the 545,000 votes in the Electoral College that elects the President of India

Since Narayanan is unlikely to get a second term and considering the Maharashtra governor's decades-long association with the Nehru family, Kerala Chief Minister A K Antony and his associate Oomen Chandy tried to mobilize support for Dr Alexander with Sonia. Like President Narayanan, Dr Alexander hails from Kerala. While Sonia kept mum, Arjun Singh ticked off the duo, telling them that the chances of Sonia becoming prime minister would decline sharply if a Christian were to become the next President of India.