President Pranab Mukherjee is a political artist.
His address to the nation on the eve of Republic Day, this year, was a triumph of this artistry.
He spoke about political concepts with deftness, used words nimbly. He sketched, drew, brushed, painted thin and painted thick. Let us look at the picture he gave us.
Like all artists, he must have kept others’ examples, other Presidents’ examples, in mind. The valuationally restive Rajendra Prasad spoke with a controlled intensity. The Upanishadically-charged S Radhakrishnan spoke with the detached confidence of wisdom, the thoughtful Zakir Husain’s words came from pure-heartedness, and, in more recent times, a brooding KR Narayanan gave the nation grave, even pained, messages. “Beware”, President Narayanan said, “of the fury of the patient man”.
President Mukherjee introspects no less than these great predecessors of his. And he knows the impact that a President’s ‘open introspections’ can exercise over the country’s mind. And so, in his Republic Day address this year, when he spoke about corruption, about elections, about the dangers of anarchy, he did what he knew was expected of him.
He gave us this proposition: “Corruption is a cancer that erodes democracy”. Who would disagree with that? No one. But anyone and everyone would wonder: Surely corruption does more than that, does worse than that. When it infiltrates the ranks of our bureaucracy, our magistracy, our media, our corporates, our educational system and even the impeccable cloisters of our armed forces with audacity, corruption is gross. It corrodes the core of civilised nationhood — trust.
It undermines faith in all our institutions, those that create governments as well as those that sustain the limbs of society. Corruption mutilates confidence in the fairness of our swaraj. It reduces the accessing of entitlements to a scramble, faith in our Republic to a gamble.
We still have the ‘pure’ in India, though not in politics. We have the clean, even in politics, the not so dirty and the dirty. Then we have in Indian politics those that are worse than the dirty. They are the downright filthy. This is the politico who with the mafiosi’s help pushes drugs, buys and sells illegal arms, mines coal and ore clandestinely, compromises the police and the bureaucracy routinely and can have Right To information activists bumped off.
The President’s ‘corruption is a cancer that erodes democracy’ observation did not quite serve to show us this multiple malevolence. But he made sure to tell the corrupt politician and his type that unless they altered their ways, they would get replaced. That was artistry, that was finesse! And then, lest he be seen as inadvertently giving AAP his blessing, he sounded three notes of a very contrary caution:
“Elections do not give any person licence to flirt with illusions”.
“Those who seek voters’ trust must promise only what is possible”.
Counter-archery, in which you shoot an arrow to hit the arrow you have just shot, is about finesse too.
Put differently, he meant: Let the corrupt not miss the writing on the wall; they will get thrown out. Shoot. Equally, let the anti-corrupt be warned too; they will be seen as Utopian. Counter-shoot. Be warned, ye corrupt; be warned, ye anti-corrupt. But be warned, even more, ye anarchy-wallahs, too, for much as our people are clicking with you on corruption-removal, they will un-click with you if you turn rowdy. They may well prefer corrupt governance to ‘honest’ misgovernance. Shoot, shoot, shoot.
The martial arts are art.
Like President R Venkataraman, President Shankar Dayal Sharma and President Narayanan before him, President Mukherjee is a Congressman who has become President of India largely because of the Congress’ backing, but who faces the piquant prospect of having to invite a non-Congressman to form the government. We can be sure that, like his predecessors, he will do right by the Constitution and will act strictly by the rules of the game.
But he has given us a sense of what he would like to see — an obvious choice for prime minister coming from a clear mandate. Incidentally, there were snatches of sentences which the BJP could say smile at Narendra Modi, and others which the Congress would be justified in seeing as a benedictory smile at Rahul Gandhi. Be that as it may, President Mukherjee made it clear that he does not want a hung, drawn and quartered Parliament. And so, he went on to say: “A fractured government after the polls will be catastrophic”.
That, perhaps, is the most honest public expression that we have had of any President’s personal view on an election’s outcome. It is also as near as any President has ever got to telling us how not to vote, if not how to vote.
Are we going to make things easy for the President? The record-breaking scams associated with its regime notwithstanding, will we vote in the UPA for a third term? Disregarding the macabre experience of 2002, will we vote Modi into the prime minister’s office? Or will each state throw in a miniature print of its own, making a total picture that is incoherent? No one can say.
But this much all know: there is a restlessness surging around and within us, an angered fatigue, an impatient wish for change. And for change not just in the dramatis personae but in the script of the political play. This being the state of the nation’s mind, what role can political artistry have in the coming denouement?
Precisely because our President is who he is, I believe, he is going to use his political artistry in the coming months very differently from how he has done it, in the past. This is my gut feeling.
Clear majority — and the President will have no problem! Unclear verdict — just watch this space.
Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor
The views expressed by the author are personal