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The pettiness of the race

india Updated: Jun 21, 2007 17:46 IST
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I had a feeling that this was going to happen. And I guess you did too; at some level, we all did. Two months ago, I wrote on this page, about the search for India’s next President. The candidates had yet to all declare themselves but several things, I suggested, could be taken for granted already.

The first was that nobody would bother looking for the best President India could possibly have. Instead, as the politicians plotted and squabbled, some compromise candidate whose chief virtue was that he or she was largely inoffensive and unobjectionable would emerge as the final choice. This was precisely how APJ Abdul Kalam was pulled out of cheerful retirement to take the job the last time.

The second was that the individual would be presented to the country as the representative of some specialist group: Indian’s first Dalit President; India’s first Sikh President; the BJP’s peace offering to the Muslim minority or whatever. Sometimes, the symbolic candidate approach yielded good results. For instance, KR Narayanan was one of India’s finest Presidents though he probably only got the job because of his caste. But more often, we have ended up with dolts.

And the third was that petty politics would take precedence over merit. Giani Zail Singh, undoubtedly the single worst President in Indian history got the job because of his shameless chamchagiri of Indira Gandhi and her son, the thug-like Sanjay.

With the pathetic and banal predictability that is fast becoming the hallmark of Indian politics, history has repeated itself. Our next President will probably be Mrs Pratibha Patil, the archetypal last-minute candidate whose name was accepted because nobody could find anything objectionable about her.

Once again, the candidacy is being packaged as a symbol. Apparently, we should all be dancing in the streets with joy because, in the 60th year of our independence, we will finally have a woman President. And the run-up to the announcement of Patil’s candidacy was marked by the usual petty politics. It was not as though India was selecting the best possible President. Instead, the parties of the so-called Third Front were using the election to try and embarrass the UPA by defeating its candidate. The NDA was trying to encourage tactical cross-voting. The UPA itself could not decide on a single candidate. And the Left — fast emerging as the spoilt child of Indian politics — decided to throw a hissy fit.

I don’t suppose you need me to tell you how revolting the entire tamasha of the race for the presidency has been. And since none of us can really have been surprised by the nature of the outcome, I won’t bore you by dwelling on the unedifying spectacle of our politicians at play, treating the election as some sort of sordid little game of their own, forgetting that they were supposed to find the best President.

But two points, I think, are worth making. The first is that I find this whole “Look, we’ve found a woman President! Hooray!” routine obscene and offensive.

None of these guys actually set out to find a woman candidate or to make any kind of political statement. The closest they came to considering the idea was when Karan Thapar asked the CPI’s AB Bardhan on TV what he thought of a woman at Rashtrapati Bhavan. It wasn’t a bad idea, said Bardhan, he would consider it. (You can read Karan’s admittedly boastful account of the exchange elsewhere on this page.)

When Pratibha Patil’s name was announced, Bardhan proudly told Barkha Dutt that he had been in favour of a woman all along, twisting out of all recognition a cautious response to a suggestion made by somebody else. And while Bardhan is a decent man, distinguished by his intelligence and integrity, his principal role these days — in common with the rest of the CPI — is to appear on television to find clever arguments to justify what Prakash Karat has already decided on his own.

And if Karat had wanted a woman President, then why did he push so hard for the distinctly masculine Pranab Mukherjee and the ailing but still macho Arjun Singh?

So, let’s not get carried away by all this politically correct pro-woman hypocrisy. At least six names were considered by the UPA and the Left (Pranab, Arjun Singh, Karan Singh, Shivraj Patil, Sushil Kumar Shinde, Motilal Vora and more). Not one was a woman.

The only reason Pratibha Patil’s name came up was because the Congress had wearied of Prakash Karat’s veto. No matter what name the party came up with, Karat refused to move beyond Pranab or Arjun Singh. When even dull but deserving Shivraj Patil was turned down, the Congress had the bright idea of coming up with a woman compromise candidate. If Karat had objected to Mrs Patil, he would have seemed anti-woman and so, he finally gave in.

Why is Mrs Patil a better candidate than Mr Patil? Both are steady, mainstream Maharashtra politicians who will toe the Congress line. But she’s a woman and, therefore, difficult for a politically correct commissar to oppose.

So, the conclusion of this leg of the presidential race was not a victory for woman’s empowerment at all. Rather, gender was used as a weapon to win a petty political fight that was about something entirely different.

I’m a little tired also of seeing women politicians on TV telling us smugly (the ones from the Congress) or hysterically (the ones from the Left) how the election of Mrs Patil will actually help Indian women. If history has taught us anything it is that the caste, gender and religion of the occupant of Rashtrapati Bhavan make no difference to those whose aspirations they are supposed to symbolise.

It is hard to think how Muslims have benefited from having Kalam in the top job. Nor did Dalits gain from Naryanan’s stature. And Sikhs actually suffered because of Zail Singh’s machinations.

And when it comes to gender in particular, there is no evidence that women benefit significantly when other women are in power. Indira Gandhi ruled India from 1966 to 1984 (with a brief Janata interregnum). Did the lot of India’s women dramatically alter?

Have the women of Tamil Nadu gained from Jayalalithaa’s years in office? Are Delhi’s women better off than Bombay’s because Sheila Dixit is their chief Minister?

The short answer to all those questions is no.

The second point worth making about the race for the presidency is that it crystallised the feeling that many educated people already had about the Left: that it is now using its leverage at the Centre to push petty, personal political agendas; that power has gone to the heads of its unelected leaders; and that it no longer stands for very much.

In the early days of this government, it was common to sneer at the CPM for its opposition to liberalisation. I have to say that I never shared in the general derision. I may disagree with the Left on economics, but it represents something valuable and valid that is missing from the rest of Indian politics. Its leaders (men such as Bardhan) are gentlemen of the old school; they keep their word; they do not lust after power; they are incorruptible; and they continue to care for those at the margins of our society even when it is no longer fashionable to do so.

Of late, however, the Left (and the CPM in particular) is in danger of coming across as just another political party. Its bizarre flirtation with Mulayam Singh Yadav long after civil society and the people of UP had wearied of the SP’s Bollywood brand of crony capitalism; its shameful behaviour over the Nandigram agitation; and the intrigues that left Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee isolated within the national leadership — all these are worrying signs.

The CPM has merged from this race with no credit at all. First, its leaders sabotaged the presidential prospects of their own candidate (Somnath Chatterjee), then they failed to come up with any good names of their own (what about Jyoti Basu?); next, they announced that the President had to be a politician (what was wrong with Amartya Sen?). And then, they sulked like little children when the UPA would not nominate Pranab Mukherjee.

Few people think more of Pranab babu’s brilliance than I do. But is he some secret champion of the proletariat that the Left should have got so obsessive about his candidacy? If his own party did not want to nominate him, then why should the CPM demand that he got the job? And what about Arjun Singh? Why push and push for his candidacy? It’s not the politburo’s job to run the internal affairs of the Congress. Of course, the Left has a right to have its say. But it cannot play favourites with other people’s parties and then sulk when it does not get its own way.

Pratibha Patil is a very nice person. She is at least as good as most of the candidates whose names were discussed. And she’s a lot better than many of those on the UPA’s shortlist. Politics is full of surprises. So, who knows? She may end up as a great President.

But until history delivers its verdict, only one thing is clear. She didn’t get the job because she was the first choice. She got it only because Prakash Karat couldn’t get Pranab Mukherjee’s name through. And the UPA lacked the clout to defy the CPM.

It’s a hell of a way to choose a President.