Last July, I met a group of disaffected traders in one of Delhi’s big markets discussing how the Goods and Services Tax had hurt their businesses. They were angry with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, which they had supported all along, and disappointed with how Prime Minister Narendra Modi had gone about implementing the new tax regime.

Come 2019, I told them, and they would willy-nilly go with the BJP. They looked sheepish and started venting their spleen at Rahul Gandhi for not coming up to scratch. Then, they suggested an alternative to Modi that utterly surprised me. If Pranab Mukherjee were to take over in 2019, they said, “he will manage everything”. But he was not a leader with a mass appeal, I pointed out. He did not have to campaign, they replied, but merely take charge if the Opposition wins enough seats to form the government. He had conducted himself with dignity as India’s president, not taking sides, knew the system inside out and, thus, could make it work.

Mukherjee’s copybook and uncontroversial presidency had gone down well with them and his vast experience seemed to hold an appeal given how the Modi government had botched up the major policy decisions of demonetisation and GST. They also appeared sympathetic to the Congress veteran who they thought was denied prime ministership despite fully deserving it.

Last week, by agreeing to be the chief guest at Sangh Shiksha Varg, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s most important annual function in Nagpur on June 7, Mukherjee has suddenly taken centre stage of the political discourse and stirred the proverbial pot.

At the risk of overreading this, Mukherjee has, with this one decision, positioned himself as a serious candidate for the country’s top job in 2019, in a scenario that is increasingly becoming open.

The latest bye-elections have made the BJP vulnerable in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. As it is, the party is fighting with its back to the wall in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, facing a 15-year anti-incumbency in both states, and in Rajasthan, where anger has been building up against the Vasundhara Raje government. Maharashtra is not looking good for the BJP either, with the Nationalist Congress Party and the Congress set to ally for 2019, and the Shiv Sena playing truant.

The Opposition’s unity is yielding electoral dividends but its Achilles heel remains the absence of a leader who is acceptable to all those who matter and is able to instil confidence that India will be in safe hands. Can Mukherjee be that figure? Can he, with his experience of troubleshooting and hands-on administration, be the antithesis to the flamboyantly articulate Modi and, for that reason, acceptable?

Pranab Mukherjee meets Mohan Bhagwat at Rashtrapati Bhavan in 2015. Photo via Twitter

Man of the moment

It is clear that Citizen Mukherjee – as his Twitter handle describes the former president to distance him from the Congress, which he was part of for decades and put him above party loyalty – is not ready to walk into the sunset yet. He has been very active since leaving Rashtrapati Bhavan a year ago, meeting a series of political leaders, notably Naveen Patnaik, LK Advani, Sitaram Yechury and HD Deve Gowda in Odisha earlier this year.

All eyes are on what the former president is going to say in Nagpur. While the Congress is sharply divided on his decision, regional satraps have maintained a studied silence. Mukherjee is moving closely with Mamata Bannerjee and, if those in the know are to be believed, they will back each other at the appropriate moment.

He is expected to strike notes in Nagpur that will endear him to regional parties not allied with the BJP – about secularism, plurality, constitutionalism, giving minorities a sense of confidence, all-embracing nationalism, and the need for tolerance and dissent. But he will do this in a way that does not offend his host, the RSS.

Most regional satraps could accept him as the leader of a non-BJP coalition government in 2019. But like Mukherjee, Sharad Pawar has been networking with state chieftains and could emerge as a contender. And if it comes down to it, who would Sonia Gandhi prefer? Mukherjee or Pawar? Though there is no precedent of a former president taking over as prime minister, there is no law against it.

Mukherjee knows how to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds, and has navigated many minefields in his day. The Congress was fighting the Left Front in West Bengal, yet he got the Left to support him when he contested for the Lok Sabha. The Left also rooted for him to become the president in 2007 – the idea was shot down by Sonia Gandhi – and again in 2012, when Bannerjee and the Shiv Sena also supported the proposal, leaving Sonia Gandhi with no choice but to back him for Rashtrapati Bhavan.

"Pranab Da, you have always been a father figure and a mentor to me," wrote Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Mukherjee's last day in office as president. of India. Photo: PTI

Sangh Parivar’s backup?

While Mukherjee could be an acceptable candidate for prime minister for regional parties and the Congress in 2019, it does not explain why he has to go to Nagpur. Equally, why would the RSS invite him at this juncture? Of course, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat had called on him twice when he was the president and a few times afterwards, and is believed to have elicited a promise that Mukherjee would return the courtesy.

Mukherjee, who has often lamented the growing acrimony in politics and the consequent impasse in Parliament, is clearly working to pitch himself as a nationally-acceptable leader, ready to engage with even his ideological opponents. There could be a corporate angle to the story as well. Several big business houses would be more comfortable with Mukherjee as the prime minister than any of the popular but maverick regional satraps.

For the Sangh, getting a Congress veteran and former president to its event is a feather in the cap. Though RSS workers are quick to recall that Mahatma Gandhi and BR Ambedkar had also attended the Sangh’s functions, that was a long time ago. Mukherjee’s visit to its headquarters will undoubtedly lend the RSS greater legitimacy, and wider acceptance, even though the “cultural organisation” is the power behind the throne today.

Given that the political scene is opening up, with a united Opposition yielding results, and a hung Parliament in 2019 becoming a possibility, the RSS may be preparing for any eventuality. In the event of a non-BJP coalition coming to power, the RSS would certainly like it to be led by someone who believes not in the politics of hostility or vendetta but in the policy of live and let live.

Could Mukherjee emerge as the ultimate consensus candidate? Photo: PTI

With Mukherjee reaching out to the RSS, some Congress leaders feel it would be politically prudent for Rahul Gandhi not to overdo his attacks on the RSS, which he almost always clubs with his criticism of the BJP. It may be bad strategy because the Sangh has quietly supported the Congress on several occasions in the past – Indira Gandhi during elections in Delhi and Jammu and Kashmir in the early 1980s and Rajiv Gandhi in 1984, when he got a whopping 415 seats in the election after his mother’s assassination. The RSS can do it again, they argue, if the situation so demands.

Indeed, some in the Sangh are unhappy with Modi for becoming a law unto himself. Others, in the BJP and the Opposition, expect him to be replaced as prime minister if the BJP’s tally in the Lok Sabha drops below 200 in 2019. This is easier said than done. For Modi’s appeal could be crucial for many BJP candidates to win the next election and he would thus have more than a say in who leads the party, and the government.

Modi may opt to sit in the Opposition than hand over leadership to someone else in his party, waiting for the motley coalition of many parties that could form the government to cave in under the weight of its contradictions and sweep back to power. But the RSS would not like to risk dismantling all that has been put into place in the last four years and may therefore think of backup options.

What happens in 2019 will obviously depend on the arithmetic the election throws up, and the alliances forged in an evolving situation. One thing is certain, however. With his “Nagpur chalo” move, Mukherjee has bounced back with a bang. He will remain centre stage till June 7. As the date draws near, speculation will only mount about what he will say. Thereafter will follow various interpretations of his words and their implication, even as many try to make sense of the comings and goings at his 10 Rajaji Marg residence in Delhi. The consummate player that he is, Mukherjee will watch it all in silence. Possibly also with amusement. And the country may start to debate the pros and cons of Mukherjee in the saddle, with some seeing merit in the possibility, as those Delhi traders did a year ago.