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National Interest: It’s the highest office

The clamour for an ‘apolitical consensus’ betrays ignorance — and needs to be challenged

Written by Shekhar Gupta |
June 16, 2012 1:59:24 am

Four interesting notions have lately emerged in the public discourse on the forthcoming presidential election. First,that the current jockeying and dealmaking is unprecedented and is more evidence of our politics having sunk to its nadir. Second,that given the stature and dignity of the office,it should not go to a full-time politician. Third,that the election to Rashtrapati Bhavan should not be “politicised”,meaning that it should be consensual,if not unanimous. And fourth,since the president’s office is largely ceremonial,even ornamental,it is best to instal there a non-controversial (read apolitical) face all of India would love. All four need to be challenged.

The first notion comes from the simple presumption that the political history of this country began with the advent of 24-hour news TV. The fact is,Rashtrapati was always a deeply coveted political office and you had to campaign,canvass and jockey for it — within the larger political playground when numbers were divided,or within your own party,in days of clear majorities. The presidential election of 1969,for example,marked the greatest turning point in India’s political history so far,as Indira Gandhi put up V.V. Giri against her own party establishment’s Neelam Sanjiva Reddy,sought a conscience vote and won. Of course,her opponents got even in 1977 by getting Reddy elected when Mrs Gandhi had lost power post-Emergency. So,the office of the president has been a greatly coveted and contentious political office whenever the numbers have made a contest possible. That is why the political drama unfolding right now is entirely expected,and healthy,given the arithmetic,algebra and geometry of the electoral college today. It is normal politics.

The office of the president is nothing but a political one. Anybody who has passed Class X anywhere in India has read about the role and powers of the president of India. So those who now compare that office with the British monarch’s have forgotten what they read in their school textbooks. The founding fathers created a flexible and dynamic constitutional framework for the presidency. It can often be ceremonial,but equally,active in a role that can range from advisory to interventionist. The president can intervene in — at least raise the flag,question and delay — key appointments (including those of Supreme Court judges) and laws she may consider harmful. In a fractious polity,a good president who commands stature and respect will bring about wisdom and stability. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam did this in his last term. Similarly,even in a situation where a brute majority is ruling the country,a powerful personality in the Rashtrapati Bhavan will protect us from majoritarian excesses. Just because a Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed did not do so during the Emergency does not mean that we continue to treat all political figures as usual suspects.

In fact,the framers of the Constitution showed remarkable prescience when they defined the president’s role and powers. The president may usually have no powers other than cutting ribbons or pinning medals on people’s chests. But she is to also provide a constitutional,moral and even political centre of gravity in times of crisis — and divisive politics. She also has to plug the breaches and fill the vacuum in political authority that can sometimes arise in such a divided polity.

That should answer those who think,mistakenly,that this is a ceremonial office for a pretty face in “these times of popular disgust for dirty politics and cynicism”. It is,in fact,for this precise reason that we need a deeply political figure — but,of course,one that draws respect from the widest sections of our politics and society — in the Rashtrapati Bhavan.

The basic question is — do you want a nobody or a giant in the Rashtrapati Bhavan? There may have been junctures in our political history when the job could have been dismissed as a mere sinecure. But this isn’t one of those times. Indian politics and the rule of the Constitution face many crises. Who knows how many general elections we may have to face in the next five years: one,for sure,but maybe two,even three? We need political experience,stature,respect and calm in the Rashtrapati Bhavan. This is what will make the 13th Rashtrapati’s five years so different. This should then answer the three remaining apolitical notions.

Am I,therefore,suggesting that there will be only one candidate worthy of that office in this race? Far from it,and definitely not yet. We should celebrate,first of all,the fact that the office was so severely contested. The presidency is not a Padma award or a Rajya Sabha nomination. Nor should it be trivialised and demeaned like the office of the governor (Rajyapal). It should be contested.

As a candidate,Pranab Mukherjee brings a CV worthy of the job. Four successful,eventful decades in public life give him experience unmatched by any other. He has checked every box for a long marcher in Indian politics,except the home ministry and,of course,a stint in jail as somebody’s political prisoner. He has another privilege unmatched by any of his peers: he can shout at anybody and they will listen like delinquent schoolkids. But he will also be conscious that he has been doing that rather too often lately. He should make a pretty good president.

And if Kalam contests,he will have real competition. Kalam was not a politician,but learnt quickly. He made a great president at a difficult time,defying the government,Parliament and even the judiciary to block bad policies,laws and appointments,and applying the healing,calming touch after the awful events of 2002 in Gujarat. Frankly,if I speak entirely as a journalist,I do wish that Kalam decides to contest. That seems purely academic now but,honestly,it would have been some contest to cover.

Postscript: I wrote two National Interest articles more critical of Kalam than any you have seen anywhere (‘Kalam’s Banana Republic’,IE,April 28,2001,and ‘The Rashtrapati Reward’,IE,June 22,2002). The second was published when he had been named candidate for president. That Saturday morning I got a call from Brajesh Mishra,then NSA.

“Arrey bhai kya likhte rehte hain aap,Kalam sahib pareshan hain,” he said and asked if I’d go and have coffee with Kalam on Monday at 11 am in his Vigyan Bhavan office.

I walked in dutifully,a little bit apprehensive,rehearsing my usual defence. Kalam greeted me most warmly. Inquired after my wife’s health. They were both regular evening walkers in South Delhi’s Siri Fort Sports Complex. Then he gave me coffee and asked if I had read his India 2020: A Vision for the

The clamour for an ‘apolitical consensus’ betrays ignorance — and needs to be challenged

New Millennium. He gave me a copy and fondly signed it. I was still waiting to hear his complaints. But he instead asked if I would be inclined to know more about his vision,even participate in his project. “I need brilliant,patriotic minds like you,” he said. I made some embarrassed thanks-you-are-so-kind-but-how-can-I type of noises. He refilled my coffee and said more nice things about me,my writing and my views. Then he topped it with: “Shekharji,I have never found anything on which I disagree with you.”

Now this is not the script I had come rehearsed for. But I was now figuring the man had a politician’s tact,thick skin and magnanimity. He would make a pretty solid politician,I said to myself. I was never wrong on that one.

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