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HindustanTimes Thu,23 Oct 2014
Much ado about little
Chanakya, Hindustan Times
May 05, 2012
First Published: 22:28 IST(5/5/2012)
Last Updated: 22:31 IST(5/5/2012)

The roses in the Mughal gardens of the Rashtrapati Bhavan must certainly hold more attraction than I thought. A battle royale is on for the post of the next president of India and all the gloves seem to be off. And to think that the Indian public actually sees the president only when he or she takes the salute on Republic Day or is pictured raising a toast of fruit juice in foreign capitals.

And so the vehemence with which the Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha Sushma Swaraj dismissed the vice-president to a less than distinguished president as a lightweight is a little surprising, if unexpected, from a heavyweight like her. And into the pit leapt some of our beloved politicos saying that Swaraj's description of the gentle Hamid Ansari smacked of communalism. No, it did not. It was in bad taste perhaps, but to call it communal suggests that people are itching for a fight.

Well, fight or no fight, I must confess that I am deeply confused. Should we bring back APJ Abdul Kalam as the BJP earlier suggested? It is not so sure now, but in any case would that have been a wise course of action? No doubt, Kalam has some sterling qualities not the least being his readily available homilies. Take a dekko at this one, "As a child of God, I am greater than anything that happens to me."

It's funny that when we are so proud of our globalising status, we seem stuck in a time warp when it comes to choosing a president. True, it's a process driven by politics. But does it matter so much to any political party who becomes the president? In rare cases, the president can weigh in on the side of the government of the day. But those who have worn their political affiliations on their sleeve have done so more for effect than anything else. Giani Zail Singh spoke movingly of how he would even sweep the courtyard if asked by his political mentor Indira Gandhi. This meant nothing really in actual terms in relation to the polity. It simply made him a figure of ridicule.

And it is not always that the party of the day can get its own way. Way back in 1969, I remember then vice-president VV Giri, who was acting president after Zakir Hussain died, made a bid for the job as an independent candidate. A powerful section of the Congress pushed with great might to bring in Neelam Sanjiva Reddy but it was VV Giri who prevailed.

So much emotion is being invested in who will be rattling around the hundreds of rooms in Rashtrapati Bhavan. The political parties seem to be staking their reputations on it almost. But, I recommend that they undergo a bit of a change in mindset. The president need not necessarily be a superannuated politician, it could be a politician who is active, articulate and, yes, telegenic. Why not?

Let's admit it, we were not exactly brimming with pride at the conduct of some of our past presidents, even those with fairly sound credentials. We felt, and pardon me if this is an elitist sentiment, that they simply could not hold their own in foreign lands, or indeed when entertaining visitors from abroad. Their foreign jaunts with extended family did not make us feel that they were doing the best for brand India. Poor Pratibha Patil, under fire from all sides, not the least being her now retired retirement home, had to take great pains to inform us through loyal officers how she told the Mauritians off on the taxation treaty. The Mauritians at last count did not really have the battalions on their side, but this really does show how little presidential interventions matter.

So, it really comes down largely to the aesthetics of the office, which one or two of those being talked about may be able to add to. I don't think we should grudge the president any air miles but the role should be that of a brand ambassador. If he or she is a person of exceptional ability and erudition, well, then that's a bonus. At the end of the day, when there is so much business to transact in Parliament, so many scams to unscramble, it seems a shame and a waste of time to get bogged down in this bitter war on the next president. Yes, all parties should proffer names but it should not be a case of my way or the highway. It simply is not worth it.

Even if a candidate from outside the political arena suddenly pops out of the woodwork, perhaps political parties could surprise us and put their differences aside and vote for the best man, or woman as the case may be. People are suffering from squabble-fatigue. To add to it over an issue like who will be sipping soup from the crockery of imperial India is to set our teeth on edge. But a swing around those fabled gardens would be something I would not turn my nose up at.


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