No one’s really noticed, but the Oriyas are really upset. Again. There was a chance that one of their own would finally become the president of India this time round. But no one from Orissa even made the grade as any political party’s presidential candidate. To add insult to injury, the 13th President is a Bengali and the outbreak of celebrations in the state next door has been keeping neighbours in Orissa awake at night.
There had been some confusion in the past when Varahagiri Venkata Giri became the fourth president of India in the late 60s. Many Oriyas had reckoned that at last one of their own had entered Rashtrapati Bhavan. But it soon came to light that this Giri was from Berhampur in the old Madras presidency, and even though Berhampur is now part of Orissa, Giri was a member of a Telugu-speaking family. So to consider him as an ‘Oriya president’ would be as pointless for ethnic chest-thumping purposes as claiming Subhas Chandra Bose as ‘one of us’ just because he was born in Cuttack, Orissa (then within the Bengal presidency).
In the meantime, Pranab Mukherjee’s ascension to Raisina Hill — and not as a presidential horse as he once wished to be reincarnated as, but as the main resident of Rashtrapati Bhavan — has resulted in Bengalis busting a button or two of their punjabi (Bengali for ‘kurta’ and what in Punjabi should be called ‘bengali’) with unalloyed pride. The Bengali, whether in Kolkata or in the other industrial ghost towns like Detroit or anywhere else, sees Pranab-da’s presidency as not so much a vindication of Mukherjee’s political prowess and of him being the perfect commander-in-chief of India, but as ethnic justice finally being delivered.
The perception of being kept down in the national scheme of things for ages has finally ended for Bengalis. With Pranab-da becoming president, the ghosts of Subhas Bose’s expulsion from the Indian National Congress in 1939, Jyoti Basu’s ‘Himalayan blunder’ of being denied prime ministership in 1996, and Sourav Ganguly being dropped from the national cricket squad in 2006 have been exorcised. The transfer of the capital from Calcutta to Delhi in 1911, too, has finally been avenged — and Mamata Banerjee can put a lid on her ‘We demand respect from Delhi’ whine.
This isn’t the right time to remind fellow Bengalis what Mukherjee’s original destination was. (Clue: A Punjabi occupies that space now.) But as Bengalis will now ensure that everyone knows, being the president of India is a far greater honour than being a mere prime minister. The house is bigger, the entertainment allowance along with other perks more, and one doesn’t have to report to any non-Bengali party boss.
The 21st century has already seen long-pending ethnic-, religious- and gender-based biases being reversed. Barack Obama became the first African-American president of America. Pratibha Patil became the first table tennis player to become president of a cricket-loving nation. (A few people’s attempt to make her becoming president a matter of ‘Marathi pride’ fizzled out as soon as the Shiv Sena agreed to support her candidature.) Karan Johar became the first Indian to win a Best Director Oscar. OK, so that hasn’t happened yet because of the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences continuing to be an anti-India, racist institution.
But in the general spirit of our times being so pro-active in reversing old, fest-ering biases, Mukherjee will be sworn in tomorrow as India’s first ex-pipe-smoking, under-5 feet 6 inches, Durga-worshipping, non-Oriya Kulin Brahmin alumnus from Suri Vidyasagar College. Fellow Bengalis, at last our moment has come!