The ruling BJP’s move in reaching out to the Opposition before announcing its presidential candidate stands out in contrast to the way the Congress had gone about nominating its candidate during the two UPA regimes. In 2007, the Congress had approached the Opposition for its support only after announcing Pratibha Patil as its candidate. And in 2012, it announced Pranab Mukherjee without even consulting the Left parties.
Like the current government, the previous NDA government too had tried to build a consensus on its presidential candidate in 2002, A P J Abdul Kalam, before announcing his name. Then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had invited Congress president Sonia Gandhi and other Congress leaders to his residence and told them the ruling party wanted to field Kalam. The Congress supported Kalam, leaving only the CPM, the CPI and the JD(S) to vote for Lakshmi Sahgal.
2007: Late call to BJP
To finalise the candidacy of Patil, who would go on to become the first woman President, the Congress and its UPA partners had repeated discussions with the Left parties, which were supporting the government from outside. The Left, in fact, played a key role in finalising the candidate. The Congress’s first choice was then home minister Shivraj Patil but the Left vetoed it; eventually, the UPA and the Left agreed on Patil.
DMK patriarch M Karunanidhi then helped bring all parties together, including the BSP, to come up with a common candidate. It was only after announcing Patil’s name that Sonia Gandhi telephoned BJP leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee seeking the BJP’s support for her. The NDA, however, fielded Bhairon Singh Shekhawat against Patil.
In both 2007 and 2012, there were cracks in the then Opposition ranks. The Shiv Sena, the BJP’s ally in Maharashtra, backed both Patil and Mukherjee while the JD(U), an NDA partner in Bihar, backed the UPA’s Mukherjee in 2012 rather than the NDA’s P A Sangma.
2012: Left out
Sushma Swaraj, then leader of the Opposition in Lok Sabha, announced the decision to back former Speaker Sangma, since deceased. “In a democracy, an election is mandatory. There is nothing in Constitution that it should be through consensus. We will not give a walkover to the Congress,” Swaraj had told reporters, justifying her party’s decision not to go for a consensus candidate. This was despite reports quoting BJP sources that a section of the party leaders wanted to vote for Mukherjee.
One reason for the NDA’s decision to back Sangma instead of Mukherjee, with whom many of its leaders had warm ties, was the UPA leadership’s failure to consult its leaders before announcing the name. Arun Jaitley, then leader of the Opposition in Rajya Sabha, had said as much. “The Opposition was only informed after the announcement of its candidate and requested to fall in line. Many have fallen in line and yet many have refused to oblige… We decided not to fall in line,” Jaitley had said.
Within the UPA, the run-up to the selection of the candidate was marked with disagreement. Mamata Banerjee, whose Trinamool Congress was part of the UPA, held a meeting with Sonia Gandhi and then addressed a press conference along with Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh, and announced that the UPA candidates were Mukherjee for president and Hamid Ansari for vice president.
Mamata then went on to say that some parties including the TMC and SP had wanted to propose former President Kalam and then prime minister Manmohan Singh. But within hours, the SP leader, who had several rounds of discussions with Congress leaders, announced that his party would stand by the UPA nominee. Although the NDA made an effort to wean the TMC away, the latter eventually voted for Mukherjee.
In fact, the CPI, which had backed the UPA-1 candidate, was not consulted before finalising the UPA-2 candidate. Late CPI leader A B Bardhan was quoted as saying that no one from the Congress spoke to him before finalising Mukherjee’s name.