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Presidency’s dirty precedent

Most people regard as a tragedy and a disgrace that the search for India’s next President has turned into a sordid farce, writes Vir Sanghvi.
Hindustan Times | By Vir Sanghvi
UPDATED ON JUL 07, 2007 11:20 PM IST

Can you make any sense of the allegations against Pratibha Patil? And what about the charge that Bhairon Singh Shekhawat quashed a criminal case against himself once he got into office? Do you understand what that is about?

Well, me neither.

Judging by the calibre of the people who have been going for Pratibha Patil, there must be something to the allegations. But frankly, nobody I know seems too concerned. So it is with the charges against Shekhawat. Perhaps there’s something to them. Perhaps there isn’t. But either way, it is not an issue that’s gripped the national imagination.

But here’s what most people I have met do think: they regard it as a tragedy and a disgrace that the search for India’s next President has turned into a sordid farce. They are appalled by the shenanigans that preceded the announcement of nominations; dismayed by the enthusiasm of India’s politicians for keeping the job within their own community; disgusted by the caste, gender and minority cards that political parties tried to play; annoyed by the unwillingness of politicians to simply look for the best person for the job; and now, revolted by the depths to which both major parties have sunk in their readiness to smear the two candidates for first citizen only to prove some nasty, petty, political points.

As for Pratibha Patil, she was not even among the first six potential candidates served up by the Congress for Prakash Karat’s delectation. It was only when the Left turned all of them down that Mrs Patil was produced as a last-minute compromise candidate.

And, regardless of whether you believe Arun Shourie or not, there’s no doubt that Mrs Patil neither has national stature and nor has she gripped the public consciousness. We accept that she will probably be the next President but are not terribly excited by the prospect.

Why then did the BJP choose to launch this unprecedented attack on Mrs Patil? Most people will find it hard to believe that the BJP was struck by a sudden attack of morality. The charges against Patil are not new. They have been floating around Maharashtra for a while. The bulk of Arun Shourie’s allegations consist of charges and criticisms that other people have already levelled against her.

And yet, when she became Governor of Rajasthan, the BJP made no attempt to dig up those charges. Even when a BJP chief minister shared a vaguely antagonistic relationship with Mrs Patil, the party was still not moved enough to rake up any of these issues. The final straw should have been when, as Governor, Mrs Patil confronted the state government over the Conversion Bill. But even then, not one cheep out of the sangh parivar.

Why has the BJP now suddenly decided that Mrs Patil is not fit for high office? Why has it launched this vicious an attack on a woman who, in all probability, will be our next President? Never before in Indian history, even when the likes of Indira Gandhi sent sleazy stooges to Rashtrapati Bhavan, did the BJP (or the Jan Sangh) get so agitated or break so completely with precedent. So, why now?

The short answer is politics. It is widely believed in political circles that if the UPA candidate loses the presidential election, the government will fall. And so, the Opposition is trying every trick in the book to damage the candidacy of the UPA nominee.

While the UPA and its allies have a majority in the electoral college, this majority could be dented if some allies are scared off by Mrs Patil’s record or even if some MPs and MLAs regard her as too tainted a candidate and refuse to vote for her, regardless of party affiliation.

My guess is that the strategy will not work. Mrs Patil will get elected anyway. And the country at large has recognised that political expediency — rather than some late-awakened morality — is behind the campaign and its viciousness. That’s why, despite the best efforts of the BJP and its supporters, the campaign against Pratibha Patil has not taken off. Indians, already dismayed by the manner in which nominees were selected, have refused to play into the hands of politicians yet again only so that governments may fall and new ministries can get formed.

If the BJP pose of lofty morality cloaks a more devious political motive, the UPA has also behaved disgracefully. The tit-for-tat charges against Bhairon Singh are unbecoming of a serious political party. If the Congress always thought he was so bad, then why did it keep its mouth shut till the Pratibha allegations were levelled?

And the UPA — along with the rest of the political establishment — should stop and reflect on the mess that this year’s presidential election has been.

Part of the problem is that we have no conception of what a perfect President should be like. Take the Left’s claim that the next President should be a politician. Why should this be so? Well, says the Left, because a President has to take political decisions.

Okay. Let’s look at the politicians who have occupied Rashtrapati Bhavan. Zail Singh was a politician but his sole contribution to constitutional propriety was to try to overthrow the legally-elected government of India. That’s hardly a recommendation for the political class. And what about Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed who not only signed the Emergency proclamation but also went along with Mrs Gandhi’s shameful suppression of civil liberties?

Contrast these politicians with Abdul Kalam who, while hardly a great President, rarely seemed out of his depth in the top job despite never having been a politician. Or Dr S Radhakrishnan who, despite his philosophy background, was an exemplary President.

Moreover, all too often, we are swayed by tokenism. Why couldn’t Sushil Shinde become President? Well, because the UPA needed Mayawati’s support and she wouldn’t back a Dalit from outside her party. Why did the CPM, which had turned down perfectly good candidates, finally agree to Pratibha Patil? Well, because she was a woman so it would seem politically correct.

It is instructive that the idea of Mrs Patil’s candidacy as a victory for women’s empowerment — which the UPA has tried so hard to sell — has never taken off. People are not fools. They know that she was a desperate last-minute choice.

And, of course, time and time again, everything comes back to the role of the Left. Prakash Karat and his allies found grounds to object to every candidate the UPA proposed. But when Pratibha Patil’s name came up, nobody in the Left even bothered to investigate her credentials. If they had done a little digging, they would have come up with the controversies. But where issues of substance existed, the Left couldn’t care less. Its objections were arbitrary, random and based on nothing more than prejudice against individual candidates.

Plus, there’s one other thing. If you are going to insist on politicians for the presidency, then there will always be scandals to uncover in their backgrounds. For instance, many, if not most, senior politicians in western Maharashtra are enmeshed in the same kind of cooperative bank controversies that have haunted Mrs Patil.

Or, if the Left had fielded Jyoti Basu, it would have been easy enough to recall the scandals involving his son. If the BJP had managed to get PC Alexander’s candidacy through last time, somebody would have brought up his resignation from the PMO in 1985 in the wake of a spying scandal.

It’s not enough to say that Alexander was innocent or that none of the charges against Basu and his son were proved — no court of law has found Pratibha Patil guilty either. If you are looking for a scandal-free President, then such is the nature of our politics that there’s always muck to uncover where politicians are concerned.

In the past, parties that have nominated politicians have recognised this. The Janata Party (of which the BJP was a constituent) nominated Sanjeeva Reddy as President even though he had been implicated in countless corruption scandals. His background was never an issue then, though it was well known.

There are lessons in all this for the future. Most of us have already given up on this race and treated it as a bad dream. But we can’t let this happen time after time.

Let this time’s dirty, sordid fiasco serve as a cue for the evolution of some objective criteria for an Indian President. By next time, we should have given up on all this token-istic nonsense (caste, religion, gender etc), abandoned the absurd stipulation about only politicians being suitable for the job, and have framed the qualifications for an ideal President.

Otherwise, judging by this time’s race and the muck surrounding it, even the presidency — untouched, for the most part, by the squalor of Indian politics — will sink into the cesspool that is modern Indian public life.

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