NR Narayana Murthy is one of Mother India’s most admirable sons. He is a homegrown capitalist, the boy next door who made good at home and abroad, the son of a school teacher who built India’s flagship IT company. Infosys Technologies Limited is not only globally competitive but also known for its excellent human resource practices.
Murthy himself is a corporate leader with a heart, his success so very attractive precisely because it is so rooted. Infosys Technologies may have a turnover of $2.2 billion and be listed on the Nasdaq, yet there’s always been the comfortable belief that its chief goes home every evening to sambhar and rice.
No wonder, recently on a visit to the Infosys campus in Mysore, when APJ Abdul Kalam, our magnificent and most beloved eccentric, was asked how he would feel if Murthy succeeded him as President when his own term expires later this year, Kalam beamed, “Fantastic, fantastic, fantastic.” In an sms opinion poll, 90 per cent television viewers said, yes, Murthy should become President, an apolitical individual should become President. Should Murthy become President of India? In the opinion of your columnist, no. Why? Because Infosys is not Rashtrapati Bhavan. Not yet anyway.
A curious faux pas has disappointed Murthy’s admirers, dented his halo a little. When asked why an instrumental version of the national anthem was played during the President’s visit, Murthy responded that although there were singers available, Infosys used an instrumental version because it did not want to “embarrass” its foreign employees or interns who may not have been able to sing along to Jana gana mana. The brave Kalam sang away alone while a wordless, antiseptic tune played the national anthem. Infosys was more determined not to embarrass its foreign interns than sing along with the President.
Predictably, Karnataka’s politicians, particularly those in the anti-Murthy camp, took umbrage and accused him of damaging national honour. Notwithstanding Murthy’s apology almost immediately, the blogosphere erupted in protest. One articulate blogger said this was the face of globalisation; economic success means being embarrassed about our identity. The fact that only the day before Sachin Tendulkar had been seen cutting a cake decorated with the tricolour was more grist to the bloggers’ mill. Both Tendulkar and Murthy have shown disrespect to India, fumed the bloggers.
A calm, yet undeniably disappointed voice came from Karnataka’s most celebrated writer, UR Ananthamurthy. Ananthamurthy said that Murthy’s use of the word ‘embarrass’ was unfortunate and showed that he was a cosmopolitan who was distant perhaps from the realities of India.
Has Murthy committed a sin by not singing the national anthem for the President? Of course not. Not singing the national anthem is not a sin and Murthy is probably a far greater patriot than those who make a fetish of their nationhood through symbols and accessories. As Ananthamurthy said, Murthy’s statement was being blown out of proportion and sensationalised. But the truth is, the anthem episode is also on some subliminal level very saddening. The beautiful Jana gana mana: ‘embarrassing’?
The President of India is our first citizen. He represents the Indian State and the Indian people from Bangalore to Barabanki to Midnapore to Salem. There are perhaps compelling reasons to abolish the office altogether. After all, the President can certainly be called His Superfluous Highness given his complete lack of power. But although the President is powerless, he embodies a certain moral purpose: he is supposed to be our continuous link with the men and women who dreamt India into existence. Even so obvious a rubber stamp President as Giani Zail Singh returned the Postal Bill as well as Rajiv Gandhi’s Defamation Bill, which would have so badly damaged fundamental rights. KR Narayanan stood firm against the government and sent back an order dismissing the Bihar assembly. So called ‘political’ Presidents have often been very courageous.
Kalam may have been forced to sign the outrageous dissolution of the Bihar assembly through the by-now infamous midnight Moscow order, but Kalam has redefined the presidency in unique ways. His herbal garden, his personal emails, his love of children, the boundless energy, the unquestioned integrity, the insane haircut, all add up to making him our first people’s President, someone whose caste, religion and region have all become totally irrelevant.
A newly-rich middle-class, retreating rapidly into its own private world of private schools, private transport, private water and private electricity, would like to see a President from the private realm. But the President of India cannot belong to the world of air-conditioned offices and state-of-the-art gadgetry. The President of India belongs to the world of the second class train traveller, the 2 km trek to a school and the long queues for water.
The middle-class contempt for politicians and the political process in general leads it to choose a Murthy-like figure for President. We need a clean outsider who is not tainted by politics and public life, say technocrats. But choosing an ‘apolitical’ President or turning one’s back on politics betrays a chilling disengagement. Politics may be venal and criminalised, but it remains the arena of tremendous social change, it is the life blood of many regions and it is the gritty ugly face of democratic transformation. To choose a figure who has no relationship with the big dilemmas of secularism, of social justice or of economic inclusion, for whom reservations is a complete no-no and for whom mass English language is the mantra for progress is understandable on the part of the middle-class, but from the point of view of the tectonic pulls and pressures of Indian society at this time, such a President would be terribly artificial.
We are a country of consumers and the newly-rich. But we are also a country of bow and arrow-toting adivasis. The scream of injustice and the bloodshed of poverty are daily living realities. Caste may be irrelevant for many, but it is a savage oppression for millions of others. Religion is a spa for many, it is a daily duty for millions. The representative of all these Indians cannot be someone who is wary of ‘embarrassment’. Additionally, the harsh political truth too is that a Brahmin like Murthy, who is anti-reservation and anti-Kannada, would probably never get elected anyway.
NR Narayana Murthy is justifiably a hero of new India. He is a visionary as large-hearted and as far-sighted as few are; he is our Bill Gates. But just as Bill Gates will probably never be President of the United States, so also Murthy will probably never be President of India. And perhaps that’s how it should be.
The writer is Senior Editor, CNN-IBN