The nation would have heaved a collective sigh of relief, now that the ‘tamasha’ surrounding the Presidential election has got over. The last few months were consumed by seemingly endless and entirely futile speculation in the media over the tantalising possibilities held out by the election.
The excitement was largely due to the widely held belief in political circles, and therefore in the media, that the election was a semi-final match before the final to be played out in 2014. The UPA and the Congress were expected to have a hard time getting their nominee through. In the event, they seem to have outwitted the Opposition and sailed through the testing time.
Semi-final or not, one suspects there was a serious attempt to persuade the Prime Minister to give up his chair. Neither Mamata Banerjee nor Mulayam Singh Yadav are politically so naïve that they would casually and publicly float the PM’s name as a possible contender for the President’s office. What is far more likely is they were encouraged to test the waters and prepare the ground for the dramatic declaration of no-confidence in the PM.
It was tasteless and indicative of the fight for turf within the Congress. It will be interesting now to see if President Pranab Mukherjee writes a tell-all book, now that he has the leisure, and throw some light on the politicking that marred the Presidential election this time. What is important, however, is that the Prime Minister’s camp refused to blink and nipped the move in the bud.
In the centenary tribute to former President, R. Venkatraman, published earlier this year, Gopal Krishna Gandhi recalls how RV refused to campaign, even after being advised to do so.
The situation in 1987 was somewhat similar to what the country is witnessing in 2012. Two years were to go for the next General Election and the Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress Government had frittered the goodwill with which it had assumed office. Political uncertainties loomed following dissident activities and relations between the Prime Minister and the outgoing incumbent of the Rashtrapati Bhavan were widely known to be frosty.
The Left had put up eminent jurist V.R. Krishna Iyer as their Presidential candidate while RV, the then Vice President, was the official Congress nominee. He, however, declined to undertake a nationwide tour to campaign, saying, “ I will have to speak for my candidature versus Justice Krishna Iyer’s. That in itself will be unpleasant. But more importantly, when the country is plagued by so many divisions, what is the point of a future Rashtrapati going about dividing the country’s Presidential vote ….? Let the electoral college decide on the basis of its knowledge of the candidates and a reading of the situation…I will keep quiet.”
In marked contrast to Venkatraman’s dignified response, both Pranab Mukherjee and Purno Sangma campaigned vigorously this time, often taking a dig at each other. Even before his name was formally announced, Mukherjee had indicated his yearning for regular walks on the lawns of the Rashtrapati Bhavan, an unusual and unique reason for being considered for the post. He had earlier said on record that he could never become the Prime Minister because his Hindi was poor. Clearly, he badly wanted to be the President and managed to have his way. If the Delhi grapevine is to be believed, he left UPA leadership with no choice, having threatened to quit his ministerial office and possibly the party if he was denied the nomination.
On the other hand, Sangma, with a little help from the BJP, reduced the contest to a municipal brawl, snapping petulantly, in a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black, that Rashtrapati Bhavan had been reduced to a dumping ground of ‘failed politicians’.
While Mukherjee may have played his cards well and may be deemed to have the requisite Parliamentary and administrative experience to discharge his functions (although it is argued that such experience matters little since the President can always summon for the best advice whenever such need arises), it will be debated for long whether a career politician, obliged to please some lobbies and displease others, is what the country needs on Raisina Hill.
A second look on the kind of person we should have as President and the manner he is elected , has acquired a fresh urgency following this year’s Presidential election. The country can certainly do without the suspense, blackmail, backroom deals, intrigue, the spectacle and the ugly campaigning that marked the race. We can also do without non-serious candidates and bizarre scenes like that of an auto rickshaw driver from New Delhi going to file her nomination for the Vice-presidential election on horseback.
The President of India should be able to address the world on behalf of the country. He should also be able to give some sense of direction to the Executive and ensure greater harmony and cooperation in Parliament. He should be like a gentle patriarch, who can nudge the country’s energy into the right channels. Above all, it would be nice indeed if he could listen to the voice of the voiceless.
It is utopian to expect the post to be either apolitical or non-partisan. What we do need, however, is to ensure that mavericks like Sangma are not able to ride piggyback on spurious platforms like tribal interests. We also need to evolve a system which not only allows for wider consensus but which also does away with the need for campaigning by the Presidential candidates.