Former Lok Sabha Speaker P.A. Sangma, the Tamil Nadu CM is quoted as saying, has all the qualifications needed to become the President of the Republic of India. An editorial more flippantly commented this week that we should hold a Presidential pageant and allow contenders to strut their stuff so that our political parties can make up their mind.
What indeed are the qualifications people look for in the President of India ? Writing in The Telegraph towards the end of APJ Abdul Kalam’s term, Ram Chandra Guha had summed up that the President should lend gravitas to the Rashtrapati Bhavan, should be in a position to interpret India to the world and, finally, should be able to bridge the differences, in politics or otherwise. The ability to give sage advice at times of crises, he implied while advocating the choice of Professor Amartya Sen, would be a bonus.
Sangma has , for some time now, been lobbying for a tribal as the next President of India. The campaign never acquired much steam because tribals in India are in dire need of more substantial remedies than a largely symbolic gesture of acquiring a ceremonial office. Even the cherubic former Speaker does not appear to have taken the campaign seriously till recently and had failed to take even his own political party into confidence.
It, therefore, surprised political observers when two chief ministers, Naveen Patnaik of Odisha and Jayalalithaa of Tamil Nadu, endorsed Sangma’s name and asked political parties to “rise above politics” and support his candidature. They themselves had obviously risen high enough because Sangma neither hails from either of these two states nor does he belong to the Biju Janata Dal or the AIADMK. Patnaik and Jayalalithaa, therefore, can take the moral high ground and claim that they were guided by some lofty idea while promoting him.
Significantly, the two leaders seem to have overlooked the possibility of someone like Gopal Krishna Gandhi emerging as a consensus candidate. The former Indian Foreign Service Officer and Governor of West Bengal, after all, hails from Tamil Nadu and appears to share a rapport with Patnaik. Gandhi had in fact called on Patnaik barely weeks ago, setting tongues wagging that he was lobbying for the Odisha CM’s support for his own candidature.
Gopal Gandhi, one presumes, would have been a far weightier candidate than Purno Sangma, who is now known more as central minister Agatha Sangma’s father than anything else. The former Speaker has come out with a book, a collection of his speeches, released to time with the Presidential election, and has been talking on what ails the Indian political system. But then Gopal Gandhi too has written and published several books, has an equally illustrious record in public life and is as good a public speaker, if not better, than Sangma.
What then would have prompted the two chief ministers to endorse Sangma’s name in the first place ? The cynical view would be that neither of them cares too much for Sangma and probably knows too well that he stands no chance. So, why would they float the name in the first place ? To test the water perhaps or to pressure the UPA into showing its cards. But does it really work that way ? Although one can never be sure, the two chief ministers could also have come out with their endorsement merely to avoid wasting more of their time in meeting intermediaries, aspirants and emissaries , all trying to assess their reaction to probable candidates and muster their support.
But political parties, specially Patnaik and Jayalalithaa, clearly think Sangma is a better bet than Gopal Gandhi. The latter is perhaps too apolitical and even too philosophical for their liking. A careerist like Abdul Kalam or an opportunist like Sangma, who has never been quite known for espousing tribal issues, clearly appeals to them much more.
With every passing day, therefore, Sangma’s candidature is acquiring a life of its own. His backers have found hitherto hidden virtues to push his claim. He would be the first Christian President, they have pointed out, and the first from the ‘neglected’ Northeast. He is a jolly, good fellow, known for his lavish Christmas parties in New Delhi and who has friends across the political spectrum. Another plus point is that he is neither heavyweight nor entirely lightweight and thus he suits every political party.
The speculation, the lobbying, the self-promotion by candidates like Sangma and inane statements from politicians ( wait and watch, says Pranab Mukherjee; Hamid Ansari lacks stature, said Sushma Swaraj; Meira Kumar is acceptable, says Mamata) make one wonder whether political parties are really equipped to handle the Presidential election. It seems too much to expect a working relationship between the government and the opposition required to evolve a consensus even on this largely ceremonial office. The two sides are far more keen to score brownie points against each other, to embarrass the other, if possible, and to get its own nominee elected, quietly if possible , failing which neither side is averse to strike alliances of convenience.
Sadly, there are not too many people in public life who can unite the country and inspire people and parties to rise above their own self-interest; someone people can look up to with affection and pride; someone who is wise and also eloquent, who evokes universal respect and admiration.
Even if there are such people, our political system and political parties rarely allow them to occupy the highest public office. It is, therefore, worth taking a second look at the electoral college that elects the President and modify the system.
The Parliament perhaps could prepare a panel of five illustrious people a year before the election is due. If one of them holds a public office, he should be required to step down once his name is incorporated in the Presidential panel by the Parliament. Six months after the empanelment, state legislatures can be entrusted with the task of casting preferential votes and opt for one of the panellists. The one who is supported by the largest number of state legislatures can then be elevated to the office.
There would then be sufficient time for the nation to debate the pros and cons, ascertain the views of the panellists on different issues and place their public conduct under a scanner. No whip should guide the voting and MPs and MLAs should be allowed to vote for their preferred candidate and not go by the command of the party leadership.
A President, thus elected, would not then be beholden to any particular dispensation.