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Presidential politics

It has been a long time since we chose a President because we knew he would make India proud, writes Vir Sanghvi. Write to the author

india Updated: May 30, 2007 17:18 IST

There was a time in the 1990s when the British royal family was beset by scandal. A couple of bad marriages, stories of royal adultery leaked to the tabloids, photographs of minor members of the family receiving alfresco toe jobs and a mounting irritation with Prince Charles’ disconcerting tendency to conduct entire conversations with rosebushes led a majority of Brits to tell pollsters that the country would be better off without the Queen and her badly-behaved brood.

Though public sentiment did not forgive the royals till the Queen’s Golden Jubilee in this century, all moves to replace the family floundered on a single question. If there were no pasty-faced Germans in residence at Buckingham Palace, then who would be Britain’s head of state?

Despite the best attempts of Republicans to argue that an elected head of state would be far superior to the Hapsburg-Windsors, Brits were entirely unimpressed by all possible candidates for the job. Should the state opening of Parliament be presided over by a clapped-out, pensioned off politician? Should the job go to a business tycoon? (Richard Branson? Surely not?) What about a famous author? A titan of theatreland?

Because each alternative head of state seemed even ghastlier than the royals, Queen Elizabeth and her family rode out the crisis. It was better, most people felt, to stick with a randy royal than to actually select somebody else to do the job.

Each time Indians begin discussing the candidates for Rashtrapati Bhavan, I am reminded of the example of Britain. If even the Brits, founders of the Westminster system of democracy they bequeathed us, find the thought of choosing an elected head of state too painful to contemplate, then who can blame us for being so confused?

There was a time in the 1990s when the Prime Minister of India was selected on the grounds of his inoffensiveness. HD Deve Gowda got the job because a southern candidate ended the conflict between northern rivals (such as Lalu Yadav and Mulayam Singh). His successor, Inder Gujral, was preferred to other candidates (GK Moopanar for instance) because he had no political base and was, therefore, regarded as a bit of a pushover. Earlier, the Congress had chosen Narasimha Rao on similar grounds (Big Mistake!) plus his advanced age and apparently failing health (which was miraculously restored to normal by the Viagra of power).

We’ve been fortunate that our last two Prime Ministers have been men of stature but unfortunately the same approach now guides our selection of head of state. It’s been a long time since we chose a President because we knew he would make India proud. Instead, we look for the least controversial candidate and, in a mockery of the principles of our polity, we search for as many minority tags as possible: Is he a Dalit? Is he a Muslim? Let’s make sure he is not a Brahmin! Etc.

The only thing that can be said in favour of this approach is that, at least, it is better than Indira Gandhi’s fondness for installing stooges in high places. Can there have been a more disastrous President of India than Giani Zail Singh who described that youthful thug Sanjay Gandhi as his mentor and then declared, “My leader has asked me to be President. If she had asked me to sweep the floor, then I would have picked up a broom and done it”?

Recent Presidents have not shared the Giani’s fondness for constitutional coups. But rarely have they been selected for the right reasons. I was a huge fan of KR Narayanan who made an excellent President. But let’s be honest: would he have got the job if he hadn’t been a Dalit?

Reverse caste-ism may have got us the right man but it was for the wrong reasons and the precedent this form of political correctness sets can only work to India’s disadvantage. Take the last presidential election. The BJP had a perfectly acceptable candidate in the form of Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, who was keen to get the job. But the party was so eager to prove that it was a friend of the minorities that it chose PC Alexander. (Another cynical calculation influenced the choice of Alexander: you couldn’t have a Christian President and a Christian Prime Minister, so some genius at BJP headquarters imagined he was damning Sonia Gandhi’s prospects.)

When the Alexander candidacy collapsed, the BJP scurried around, searching for another non-Hindu to demonstrate its secular credentials. It settled on Abdul Kalam who at least had the virtue of seeming like a good candidate on paper. Moreover, said BJP strategists, no political party could oppose a Muslim without seeming communal.

This time around too, the BJP has been eager to overlook Shekhawat. A delegation was dispatched to Rashtrapati Bhavan to offer Kalam a second term despite the convention that Presidents are not given a second term (at least, not since the 1960s). Once again, the argument was the same: how will the Congress oppose a Muslim?

The calculation was wrong. The Congress has said that it will not support Kalam (and quite rightly too: he has had his time in the sun and should now make way for someone else). This leaves the BJP with no option but to support Shekhawat.

But the caste negotiations and secular calculations are only just beginning. The Left has told journalists informally that it will not support a Congress candidate. You don’t need to find a reason for this decision because the Left is not even willing to support its own candidate. Poor Somnath Chatterjee will not get the job because the commissars in the politburo are not wild about him.

The Congress itself is completely confused. The single-best candidate within the party is Dr Karan Singh, a man of stature and experience. You can almost see him at Rashtrapati Bhavan: he looks suitably presidential.

But Karan Singh was born a Maharaja. So, Congressmen suspect that his selection may dent the party’s prospects with the backward castes. (You could argue about the Kashmir connection but that’s not even come up.) Instead, some Congressmen are advancing the candidacy of Sushil Kumar Shinde. Now, Shinde is probably a perfectly nice fellow but he is not being promoted for his niceness. His claim to fame is that he is a Dalit and therefore in keeping with the Congress’ alleged tradition of backing those on the fringes of our society. Once again, we are back to the same dubious political correctness.

Many middle class people would regard Amartya Sen and NR Narayan Murthy as perfectly acceptable candidates for the job. But I doubt if they will get a look-in. The political class has already announced that only a retired politician can move to Rashtrapati Bhavan. Would Sen or Narayan Murthy have stood a better chance if they were Dalits or members of religious minorities? You know the answer as well as I do.

There are many other excellent candidates. Gopal Gandhi, the Governor of West Bengal, is a decent and erudite man who had the guts to condemn the massacre at Nandigram even though he risked losing the support of the Left, vital in any presidential election.

My concern, however, is that when it comes to the crunch, political parties will ignore the merit of individual candidates. Once again, we will look for vote-banks. We will dredge up backward and minority candidates from the mists of time. And as soon as the regional parties get involved, negotiation and wheeling and dealing will take over — specially now that Mayawati has emerged victorious in UP.

In the process, the world’s largest democracy will end up with some politically correct monument to caste and communal tokenism at Rashtrapati Bhavan. And we will once again not have a President we can be proud of.

No wonder the British opted to stay with the ghastly Wind-sors. And how strange that the President of India should be the one important post in this country where dynasty counts for nothing!

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