Now that the dust has settled over the presidential polls and Pratibha Patil is preparing to make Rashtrapati Bhavan her home for at least the next five years, it may be the right time to take stock of recent events and look for the auguries that the presidential campaign holds for the polity.
Much has been made of the gutter-level, calumnious campaign mounted by the NDA against the President. Much, too, has been made of the lack of ethics and morality, the bad taste, and the untrammelled lack of respect for the august position of the Head of State. Both in the media and in private discussions, this campaign has raised, in turn, bemusement, outrage and outright despair. Not so for this commentator. After all, the BJP, more than most other parties, has always been capable of descending to any level of guttersniping.
But that does not absolve the Congress. Despite the past record — Zail Singh, Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy,
R. Venkataraman and even V.V. Giri were hardly paragons of moral or political rectitude — quite clearly it is incumbent on those who choose presidential aspirants to make sure that their favoured candidates are not only beyond reproach but, like Caesar’s wife, must be seen to be above and beyond even the slightest whiff of it. For all I know, Patil is blameless. Could Sonia Gandhi and the UPA have put the matter beyond any hint of doubt?
From the outset, both the UPA and the Left had made it clear that they wanted a political personage, rather than just an eminent citizen, on Raisina Hill. One, they argued, who would be sensitive to and well-versed in the hurly-burly of politics and the constitutional, legal, etc. issues entailed by that form of activity. Once that decision was taken, it became virtually impossible to find a Caesar’s wife or a male equivalent. Finding a practising politician of adequate stature seen to be completely beyond reproach would surely be the equivalent of looking for a sub-atomic particle in a haystack in these troubled times. The only person — the Prime Minister — who could fit the bill has a job he can’t leave at the current juncture.
It could, of course, be argued that there are any number of eminent jurists, retired bureaucrats (and I must admit to a utopian partiality to J.M. Lyngdoh) and ‘non-aligned’ political activists who could have discharged presidential responsibilities with gravitas, exactitude and propriety. But impartiality would surely have been a big blot on their curriculum vitae.
That said, the matter is over. Done and, as it were, dusted. One wishes Patil an uneventful sojourn as First Citizen, hoping that constitutional issues of too intractable a nature do not rob her of her sleep.
But that was not the main point I wished to make apropos of the presidential elections. After all, it is just a matter of personalities. The political undercurrents are more moot. If evidence were at all needed, this campaign has provided — and the subsequent vice-presidential campaign is expected to provide — it in respect of where the Indian polity is headed in the foreseeable future. The question this evidence is germane to is: within what matrix will politics at the Centre be fixed and what shape will it take? Unipolarity, bipolarity, tripolarity, multipolarity or what?
Even when V.P. Singh’s ragtag coalition, supported from the outside by both the Left and the BJP, imploded under the weight of its internal contradictions, it was not unambiguously clear that a Third Front of some description was impossible. With the fall of the H.D. Deve Gowda/I.K. Gujral governments, the writing was on the wall.
But with the formation first of the NDA and then the UPA, matters began to find an ominous clarity. The presidential and vice-presidential elections have put matters into blindingly obvious perspective — there can be no Third Front, because their constituents are too opportunistic, too ready to strike private deals with the big two, strangely even where there is no obvious percentage in it.
There may be some behind-the-scenes logic to Jayalalithaa deserting her brainchild, the UNPA, to vote for Bhairon Singh Shekhawat. There is an obvious logic to the Shiv Sena’s stand. And the smaller parties are in perpetual Brownian motion. Among them are the outfits of Om Prakash Chautala, Ajit Singh and most of the smaller Tamil parties. Mulayam Singh Yadav’s opportunism has ruled him out as a major player and Mayawati, even at her best, is mercurial.
Of course, no one can see the AIADMK and DMK supping in the same banquet hall. And let’s be honourable and leave Mamata Banerjee out of the equation, lest even by way of analysis some uncharitable obiter dicta escape our lips.
Only two parties could have been lodestones: The Telugu Desam Party and the Left. The former is too circumscribed in its state to pull a formation as disparate and unpredictable as this together. Moreover, it would need fairly heavy mandates in Andhra Pradesh to even try. As for the Left, one thing seems clear. For the moment it has given up on its grand, decades-old dream of a formation based on equidistance, because it has probably come to realise that it has to keep its uncompromising enemy at bay: the BJP. Hopefully, it has not forgotten that during the V.P. Singh years, it made one of its most grievous political mistakes ever: giving respectability to an exclusivist, communal, divisive, even revanchist, party that still haunts the nation.
(Suhit Sen is Deputy Editor, Down To Earth)