With barely three months to go before President Pranab Mukherjee’s term ends in July, the guessing game about his successor is picking up speed. Several names are being bandied about but, expectedly, the suspense will continue till the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party declares its presidential nominee.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was preoccupied with the Assembly polls in five states that concluded in March and the budget session of Parliament that came to an end on Wednesday, will now focus on the upcoming presidential election. Given his penchant for springing surprises, as he did in his choice of chief ministers, Modi is expected to do the same and pick a dark horse as the presidential nominee. While the prime minister will obviously take the lead in picking the next presidential candidate, BJP president Amit Shah and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat will play a key role in finalising the party’s choice.

Though nobody in the BJP has any intimate knowledge of the names under discussion, some in the party believe the leadership will favour a Dalit or a backward caste candidate since the Modi-Shah duo has made a conscious effort to woo these caste groups. It paid the party a rich dividend in Uttar Pradesh, where non-Yadav backward classes virtually voted en bloc for the BJP in the recent Assembly polls. At the same time, a woman candidate is also being mentioned as a strong possibility.

This speculation is only going to intensify in the coming weeks. Only the brave will hazard a guess and pick a candidate from the list of names doing the rounds. The faint-hearted can always opt for a lifeline or call a friend for help.

There may be no clarity yet on the name of the presidential candidate but it is now certain that after the BJP’s spectacular victory in the Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand Assembly polls and a fairly good showing in Manipur, Modi will have no problem in getting his nominee elected. If the praise heaped on the prime minister by the BJP’s allies at a recent meeting is any indication, they are unlikely to question Modi’s choice.

The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance is comfortably placed as far as numbers in the electoral college – which elects the president and is made up of all members of Parliament and Legislative Assemblies – are concerned. It is only 25,000 votes short of the half-way mark of 549,442 votes. The ruling alliance is confident that it will be able to bridge the gap with the help of friendly parties such as the Biju Janata Dal, Telangana Rashtriya Samithi and a host of small parties.

President Pranab Mukherjee's term comes to an end in July and the hunt for a successor is on. (Photo credit: Prakash Singh / AFP)

The contenders

As the Dalit face of the Modi government, Minister for Social Justice and Empowerment Thawar Chand Gehlot is said to top the list of contenders. His elevation would send out a strong message to the scheduled castes who are being assiduously wooed by the BJP.

Among the names of women doing the rounds, Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan is being mentioned as a possibility for the top post. An eight-time MP from Indore, Mahajan has strong links with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and is equally respected in the BJP. It was Modi who picked her for the Lok Sabha speaker’s post. While the Opposition constantly complains about Mahajan’s partisanship in the Lok Sabha, she has acquitted herself well as far as the BJP is concerned.

Since Mahajan hails from Maharashtra, the BJP will find it easy to get the Shiv Sena to endorse her. Though the Shiv Sena has declared it will go along with the BJP’s choice, it could change its stand as it has broken ranks with the NDA in the past. It had supported the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance’s candidates – Pratibha Patil and Pranab Mukherjee – in the last two elections.

Jharkhand Governor Draupadi Murmu’s name is also being mentioned in conversations. She is a woman, an Adivasi, and, most importantly, from Odisha, a state that is on the BJP’s radar with regard to its future expansion plans. Murmu has been an active member of the Odisha Assembly and was conferred the title of best MLA of the year in 2007. If she is indeed the final choice, Modi will be credited with having given the country its first Adivasi president.

Another probable nominee is External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj. She is reputed to be a capable minister, a powerful orator and, above all, enjoys an excellent rapport with members of other political parties. There would be all-round unanimity on Swaraj’s name if Modi were to pick her. “Even Sonia Gandhi will not hesitate to endorse Swaraj’s candidature,” remarked a senior BJP leader.

BJP circles also maintain that Modi is scouting around for an eminent name from South India. Having maximised its strength in the north, the BJP is now looking to expand in the south. The party already has strong roots in Karnataka, has made inroads in Kerala and is now eyeing Tamil Nadu, given the uncertain political situation in the state after All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam chief J Jayalalithaa’s death in December. “Keen to become a pan-Indian party, the BJP would like to sew up the southern states in its favour,” said a senior BJP leader. “Some say Modi wants a candidate like [former president and scientist APJ] Abdul Kalam… who is not a politician but highly acclaimed in his or her field.”

Maharashtra Governor C Vidyasagar Rao, who is also in charge of Tamil Nadu, has made it to the list of probable candidates after his handling of the power struggle between All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leaders O Panneerselvam and Sasikala Natrajan. Not only is he a loyalist, he has acquired a reputation of being partial to the BJP in Maharashtra, which ought to work in his favour.

Urban Development Minister M Venkaiah Naidu is also in the race, but there is a possibility that he could instead be considered for the post of vice-president, who is to be elected in August.