President should be above caste, creed, class and gender considerations | columns | Hindustan Times
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President should be above caste, creed, class and gender considerations

The President’s post is one which should not be given as a reward or to get a troublesome politician out of the way. It is not the office to be occupied by a sycophant and it is not an ornamental position. The person who occupies the once imperial residence should do India proud and be looked upon as the final and fair arbiter to any political imbroglio

columns Updated: May 14, 2017 15:14 IST
Chanakya
Today we see a situation when we are openly talking about which President would suit the needs of this or that political dispensation. No, this office cannot be allowed to be dragged so low
Today we see a situation when we are openly talking about which President would suit the needs of this or that political dispensation. No, this office cannot be allowed to be dragged so low(Sonu Mehta/HT )

You must have heard of Draupadi Murmu by now. Ah yes, you will say, the tribal woman from Odisha who just might be India’s next President. Tribal, yes, but that is not all she is and that is not what should matter at all. She has been an academic, a governor and has held several ministerial portfolios, yet her utility is being seen as her tribal origins and with it the possibility that she could become a mascot to gain votes from among the marginalised for the formation seen to patronise her. What a shame that the race for the top constitutional post is now being predicated on every consideration other than merit.

While I am no mean gender advocate, I see no reason why a woman should be chosen for the sake of some form of political correctness. Look how sadly we fared with Pratibha Patil. I remember reading with some mortification that her visit did not even get a quorum in Parliament of a small South American nation for her to address. I won’t go into her delusions of grandeur in the form of setting up a museum to house the artefacts she received during her presidency in her hometown.

When KR Narayanan took office, we celebrated it as a triumph of our social inclusiveness; he was, after all, a Dalit. He was in fact a distinguished diplomat and scholar and deserving of any high office, but we sought to reduce him to his caste.

I am not saying that all presidents have covered themselves in glory. Many have indeed been guilty of acting as handmaidens of the political party to which they owed allegiance, some articulating this somewhat embarrassingly as Giani Zail Singh did. And now as the race begins in right earnest, we are once again inundated with information of the various criteria on which the next president may be chosen, all of them unsuitable if I may say so.

The President’s office is the last port of call in our democracy. If he or she returns a bill to Parliament, the ruling formation can send it back and eventually the President will have to go along with it. But it is considered a huge embarrassment for the government of the day. You will have gathered from this that studying complicated legislation, understanding its implications and on the occasion imposing President’s rule in troubled states are just some of the duties that the first citizen has to undertake.

Now many among us, and I am guilty of this myself, think that being President is a walk in the park. Even though real political power vests with the prime minister, the President’s role in this time of intense ideological divisions and social upheavals cannot be overstated.

He or she has to guide the ship of state when politicians fail on their watch. But we often think that the President has not much more to do than rattle around the many bespoke rooms of Rashtrapati Bhavan, stroll in its fabled gardens, shake hands with foreign dignitaries and be waited upon hand and foot. Well, I would not sneeze at living in a style I am not accustomed to, but if we were to take the office of the President for what is should be all about, we would simply opt for the best person for the job.

We should look at that person’s qualifications for the complex constitutional and legal problems that he or she will face. We should look at how well this person will conduct himself or herself on the world stage where there are colourful and erudite personalities as counterparts in this post in other countries. We have had outstanding presidents like S Radhakrishnan, Zakir Husain, and KR Narayanan to name a few.

But over the years, all sorts of petty political considerations have crept into the making of a President. If you and I have to be qualified for the positions we occupy, surely the first citizen should be conversant with the many complex aspects of his or her job. While being fully au fait with the political scene, the person must really float above the fray.

It is not a post which should be given as a reward or to get a troublesome politician out of the way. It is not the office to be occupied by a sycophant and it is not an ornamental position. The person who occupies the once imperial residence should do India proud and be looked upon as the final and fair arbiter to any political imbroglio.

Today we see a situation when we are openly talking about which President would suit the needs of this or that political dispensation. No, this office cannot be allowed to be dragged so low. Its credibility hinges on its distance from the machinations of politics and partisanship.

This is why I feel uncomfortable when I read about a conglomeration of political parties that have nothing in common coming together to ensure that the BJP does not get its way in the presidential race. I am not saying that the BJP has any proprietary rights on the office by virtue of being in power. But to try and prop up a candidate whose qualifications are solely geared to appeal to the largest political pool is worrying because then all the criteria which I have been railing against come into play.

Oh, and I have to add a thought that you may not agree with. Why should the President be necessarily of a certain age? Why can we not have a young President to represent India’s youthful demographic? It would sweep away some of the imperial fustiness of the office, wouldn’t it? I am not suggesting that the next President open the residence to Justin Bieber concerts or anything, but if a younger person were in place, we would see more relevant interventions on behalf of a vast cohort of our population, our future.

Age has not deterred young men, and how I wish it were also women, from occupying the most powerful post in the world. So, India could be a trailblazer in the region if we had a young, but qualified President—the emphasis being on qualified. I really wish some of the younger, smart politicians or even professionals would throw their hat into the ring. Let us have a real choice of whom to make the next President. The old criteria are worn and tattered. Let us have a new prototype for a new India.

chanakya@hindustantimes.com