Who next after Kovind? That’s a tough challenge for Modi

PM faces key hurdles in the coming weeks; the Assembly election results may have a bearing on who is India’s next President

President Ram Nath Kovind’s term ends on July 24, 2022, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi has begun deliberations on selecting a new candidate.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is set to face some steep political challenges in the next seven weeks, but, going by past events, the crises may turn into opportunities for him. If he manages to overcome the upcoming challenges, it would lay the foundation for his smooth return in the 2024 Parliamentary elections.

It may also help Modi have persons of his choice get elected as President and Vice-President. But it is not going to be an easy ride for the Prime Minister.

Next week’s Union Budget, the Uttar Pradesh elections set to start on February 10, and the elections for the new President of India are Modi’s top three concerns now. In all the three cases, he has to strike a balance between various competing demands and exceptions. His overarching emphasis would typically be on politics, as the decisions would greatly influence his party and his government’s future outcomes.

What Modi’s 9th Budget may bring

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The PM’s first crucial test will be the Union Budget — his government’s ninth — on February 1. The COVID pandemic and the farmers’ agitation have taken a toll on the Union government. So, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman is likely to make a few references to them in her Budget speech. The speech will also likely highlight the Centre’s vaccination achievement — on how around 170 crore Indians are now inoculated against COVID.

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Over the past week, Modi has been holding several rounds of meetings with Seetharaman and top officials, going through the Budget draft para by para. On Monday, January 24, the final reading of the Economic Survey was done. This document will be presented on January 31, a day before the Budget.

Sitharaman’s Budget team includes the secretaries TV Somanathan (Expenditure), Ajay Seth (Economic Affairs), Tarun Bajaj (Revenue), Debasish Panda (Financial Services), and Tuhin Kanta Pandey (Investment), besides the Joint Secretary – Budget. Of the eight in the Budget team, two have worked in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) earlier, and therefore understand Modi’s mind.

The hard task of election campaigning

Modi’s second challenge is the election to five State Assemblies, whose results will be declared on March 10. Many observers are describing it as a mid-term appraisal of his second regime. Almost every year has a set of Assembly elections, and Modi’s desire to conquer them all exerts tremendous pressure on him.

Being the BJP’s biggest vote magnet, Modi has been leading all these elections from the front. This does take his attention away from the implementation of the 2019 Parliamentary election manifesto. The PM has completed one round of poll campaign in each of the five States. Party insiders say his appeal on virtual platforms has been as effective as his in-person addresses.

Winning Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Manipur should not be difficult for the BJP. It is Punjab and Goa where it may suffer setbacks, the effects of which could manifest themselves in Modi’s third crisis — elections to the offices of President and Vice President of India.

Successors for Kovind, Venkaiah

President Ram Nath Kovind’s term ends on July 24, 2022, and that of Vice President Venkaiah Naidu on August 10, 2022. India has 735 MPs and 4,128 MLAs, who together form an electoral college that vote on the basis of proportional representation to elect a new President and Vice-President.

During the 2017 presidential election, BJP had a road roller majority in the electoral college with Shiv Sena and Akali Dal as NDA allies. Also, the AIADMK was in power in Tamil Nadu with a huge majority, and its MLAs voted for the PM’s preferred candidate, Kovind.

There is a changed scenario now. The DMK, an Opposition party in Parliament, is the ruling party in Tamil Nadu. After the abrogation of Article 370, the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly was dissolved and is yet to be revived. So, much will depend on the outcome of the elections to the five States due in February-March.

Modi needs a majority vote for his candidate to win the election, and this may pose an immense challenge.

Presidential probables

Modi recently held a broad discussion on the choice of candidates with RSS leaders, BJP President JP Nadda and Home Minister Amit Shah. It is speculated that the RSS has given its own choice of candidates for the posts. It is also said that Modi is interested in getting a woman candidate from a southern State, preferably Tamil Nadu, for the top post.

In the list of probables are two Governors close to Modi. Special emissaries were recently dispatched to Kolkata and Bhubaneswar to hold preliminary discussions with the Chief Ministers of the respective States.

What is clear is that neither Kovind gets a second term nor Venkaiah an elevation. A decision is likely to be taken in the first week of July 2022.  And, in keeping with Modi’s tradition, it will have a surprise element.

(The writer is a senior journalist based in New Delhi.)

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