Purno Agitok Sangma, presidential hopeful, is not cast in the same mould as many politicians of his generation. He has a certain joie de vivre, he loves being among young people, he loves dancing, a drop or two of brandy and not surreptitiously at that. He has been a fine chief minister of Meghalaya and an outstanding speaker of the Lok Sabha. I remember being riveted by some of the speeches he presided over: erudite, informative, spellbinding. They were the stuff of democracy.
Which is why I am so surprised and disappointed to see him projecting himself as a tribal, as though this is a qualification for the majestic office of the president. Funny, I don't think anyone I know thinks of Sangma as a tribal. So it is astonishing that he should wish to define himself as one when he is so many other things. His daughter, the young Agatha Sangma, for whom he used his deft political skills to push into a ministerial berth is, to my bewilderment, asking people to opt for Daddy because he will highlight the issues of tribals. I wonder if that is what she has been doing in her ministry so far in which she has proved a spectacular under-achiever.
Whatever reservations people may have about him, at least Pranab Mukherjee has not sought to project his Bengali identity, though dear Mamata Banerjee, always one to rush in where angels fear to tread, has declared that he is not a son of Bengal. Fine, he is not going to use Rashtrapati Bhavan to hold rabindra sangeet concerts or dish out sandesh, so he should welcome her dismissal.
But my intention here is not to go into the merits or demerits of the presidential candidates. It is to say that our elected representatives, who should lead by example, must really refrain from publicly seeking to slot themselves into different categories based on ethnicity, religion, caste or even class. Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat diminished the BJP by speaking of projecting a Hindutva face as a prime ministerial candidate. What has Hindutva got to do with the ability to run the country? Atal Bihari Vajpayee, arguably the most charismatic leader in contemporary BJP history, was suave, urbane, witty, a great orator, an outstanding statesman and wise leader. He never attributed these qualities to his being a part of the Hindutva brigade.
We are in a competitive world - we cannot allow ourselves to be straitjacketed into these narrow definitions. Barack Obama did not get where he is by harping on being black. On the contrary, he has actually sought to play down his race and focus on his qualifications of being a steady hand at the wheel of the ship of State. That is the way we should go.
Much was made of woman power when Pratibha Patil was tending the roses in Rashtrapati Bhavan. But how much happier we would have been if she had been a trooper when it came to presidential duties. She was not and so the woman card seemed, well, a bit silly and pointless. A leader like Mayawati has never hesitated to ram it down our throats that she is a Dalit, albeit not quite in the same category as those in the dusty lanes and villages of her state. I would have been so much more proud of her if she had shed that bit of baggage and projected herself as an effective leader who could deliver governance to the desperately backward state.
In fact, even when our politicos are caught with their hand in the till, they don't hesitate to attribute it to factors other than their venality. A Raja spent some quality time in the cooler for his alleged involvement in the 2G scam - the poor man is suffering because he is a Dalit was the lament from the highest quarter in the DMK. In other words, your sins are automatically washed away if you are from an 'oppressed' minority of any kind.
This perpetual victimhood is what is holding us back. Someone like Sangma or, for that matter, the late president KR Narayanan, has by dint of merit risen far beyond their caste and ethnic roots. Such things should be celebrated and held up as honourable examples. Instead, we see leaders who have made it to the top seeking refuge behind obsolete identities for sheer political expediency. How then can we expect our youth to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and become productive individuals? No, they might just think that victimhood is a far easier stepping stone to success.
Let us shake off this enervating mentality. Let us think that we are first, achievers in our chosen field, next, Indians, and then whatever else we might chose to think of ourselves as. Come on Mr Sangma, we liked you a lot better when you were your sparkling, extroverted self, not pretending to be an injured tribal. You, of all people, should know that there is no substitute for hard work. Something you may want to reflect on when you pass the magnificent edifice of Rashtrapati Bhavan next time.