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A President of our own

The demand for a people’s President should not be dismissed as yet another example of the middle-class’ lazy and knee jerk contempt for politicians, writes Barkha Dutt.

india Updated: May 30, 2007 17:18 IST

The lon-ghaired maverick with an unusual fondness for children and botanical plants will soon vacate the Rashtrapati Bhavan. He won’t leave wearing a halo, but the silver mop of hair will make its own shiny and dramatic exit.

You can argue that President Kalam’s tenure was hardly blemish-free — the Bihar blot being the worst; you can make private jokes about his propensity to playact, you can be cynical and insist that his eccentricity is manufactured. Yet, you cannot deny the fact that the missile scientist imbued the presidency with a rare individuality. He freed the post from stodgy protocol and textbook proprieties. He replaced the distance of grandeur with an earthy accessibility. And most important, his tenure changed our expectations of a president.

There was a time when ‘rubber stamp’ was the adjective used to describe the country’s first citizen. The Rashtrapati Bhavan had become almost a grand retirement home for those who could be counted as pliable. The office of the President was seen to be essentially ceremonial — more symbolic, than substantive. He was the man who hosted lavish banquets, rode in a buggy on Republic Day and signed on the dotted line as and when the government of the day demanded. No longer.

The changing face of India’s politics and civil society has given the President’s post a new gravitas. Yes, the Constitution only allows the President to send a Bill or an Ordinance back to the government once; it is true that eventually it is the Prime Minister’s cabinet that supersedes any resistance from the President’s house. But in the age of increased media scrutiny, that first refusal can dent the moral legitimacy of a controversial political decision. That’s why it was such a significant event when President Kalam returned the Office-of-Profit Bill to the government for reconsideration. That’s why his hesitation in approving the appointment of two judges confirmed public perception about them being corrupt. That’s why he was so severely criticised when he gave his assent to a midnight cabinet order on bringing Bihar under President’s Rule. And, that’s primarily why the Congress thought twice about forcing a similar decision in Uttar Pradesh before the elections. Politicians know that as public opinion learns to assert itself more aggressively, a government that goes against a presidential opinion can find itself on the defensive.

Congress insiders will unofficially argue that this President was never really “their man”. Though President Kalam is the first non-politician to occupy the post in decades, the subtext is clear: the Congress hasn’t forgotten that he was initially an NDA nominee who later evolved into a consensus candidate for both coalitions.

There may not be many takers for that theory, but irrespective of which side of the political divide President Kalam’s tenure is assessed from, it only reinforces what ordinary people believe. We do not want a politician to be our President. If the neutrality of one of the country’s most famous scientists can be brought under the scanner, can you imagine what will happen if a politician is elevated to the post? Could we ever trust him to be a man of integrity and fairness? Won’t we always expect him to first oblige his employers — the party that gave him the job to begin with? Should not the first citizen of India be a person above politics, — a sort of moral force or Ombudsman-like a figure who can be our collective conscience?

Perhaps never before has there been such a deep disconnect between India’s politicians and the people over who should be the next President. So far the fevered speculation in the corridors of power has only thrown up obvious political contenders on either side. And it won’t be the people’s will but complicated arithmetic that will determine the presidency. The electoral college has been dramatically altered by the UP poll results and knowing how unpredictable Mayawati is, she may even field her own candidate — just to stand by and watch the fun.

Ironically, it’s the Left parties once again who are adamant in their demand for a man of “political experience”. President Kalam’s apolitical resume is what the Left had objected to back then as well. Why? Where is the evidence either in this President’s records or in history to prove that a politician makes a more astute or admirable President?

On the contrary, if you go back in time, you will find any number of notorious examples of how the post was compromised: President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed did not even blink before signing Indira Gandhi’s proclamation on Emergency; Giani Zail Singh began his tenure by famously offering to “pick up the broom and sweep the floor, if Indiraji so wanted.” Later, of course, Zail Singh’s relationship with her son, Rajiv Gandhi, quickly collapsed into one of mutual suspicion and the Giani came very close to sacking the Congress government. Either way the office of President had become a hub of petty intrigue.

In fact, it was perhaps Indira Gandhi who began the business of installing puppet leaders in Rashtrapati Bhavan who she was confident of getting her own way with. Before her time it was different — her father had to accept a second term for Dr Rajendra Prasad (the only Indian President who has served two terms) despite his own reluctance.

So, the demand for a people’s President should not be dismissed as yet another example of the middle-class’ lazy and knee jerk contempt for politicians. Today, we have come to regard the President’s office in much the same way that we depend on the judiciary for justice and fair play. From quotas to disability rights to issues of religious discrimination, there was perhaps no issue in the last few years that President Kalam was not petitioned on. It is no coincidence that when the entire country rallied together to demand a fresh trial in the Jessica Lall case, the final intervention came from the Rashtrapati Bhavan. Even politicians (at least on the surface) have treated the President as the final arbiter on disputes of ethics and integrity.

Can a man (or woman) with a known political affiliation ever perform such a role? We all know the answer. So why not give us the right to choose our own President? Wishful thinking, right?

Barkha Dutt is Managing Editor, ndtv 24x7

First Published: May 18, 2007 23:03 IST