This has been a time for Indians to ponder their presidency. A P J Abdul Kalam, the best-loved rashtrapati in the country’s history, died, and his death provoked a flood of genuine national grief and love. How heartening it has been to see the respect paid to him — India’s nicest president (even as he had India’s worst haircut), a Vedas-versed Muslim who embodied the finest of Indian syncretism, and who had that ascetic simplicity and civic rectitude that one tends to find only in the best South Indians.
India has a problem with presidents. Of the many we’ve had, I can only think of S Radhakrishnan and Zakir Hussain — apart from Abdul Kalam — as men who merit our ungrudging respect. Too often (and especially since Mrs G’s autocratic time), India’s presidents have been geriatric hacks, political time-servers who’ve been rewarded in the dusk of their careers with a sinecure in India’s finest residence. I’d say the current office-holder is the archetype, were it not for the fact that his predecessor was even less inspiring. Five years from now we’ll all struggle to recall her name—which is as it should be.
The best Indian presidents have been those who were not politicians. Abdul Kalam was a scientist, or, better put, a patriot-scientist: he was a brilliant promoter of India’s national interests, and knew how to manage the worst instincts of the political charlatans he had to answer to. Most impressive of all was his ability to ignite civic passion in the young. This is the generation that finds politics despicable, and hungers for Indian role models to emulate.
Abdul Kalam was rich in the virtues that young Indians crave in their leaders: humility, selflessness, a patriotism that isn’t bogus, humanity, egalitarianism, and team-spirit — the “team” being India. And it’s in that vein that I propose Rahul Dravid as India’s next president.
Dravid—“The Wall”—India’s finest Test batsman after Sunil Gavaskar (yes, he ranks above Tendulkar), is 42 years old. Pranab Mukherjee’s current term ends in 2017. There’s no indication as yet — alas —that the government will put us out of our presidential misery that year, and I’m betting on a second term. Pranab babu will plod on, I predict, in his inarticulate, leaden way for another five years, allowing us to heave a mighty sigh of national relief only in 2022. Dravid will then be just short of 50, perfectly placed to take fresh guard at Rashtrapati Bhavan.
Why do I pick Dravid? For starters, he is the embodiment of world-class excellence in a land of irrepressible mediocrity. He is a man of unfailing dignity and personal integrity, and has not once in his career as a cricketer placed the interests of an individual above those of the team. Remember his stirring declaration of an Indian innings closed with Tendulkar on 194 at Multan?
Dravid isn’t just a champion sportsman. He’s a model citizen, his behaviour and demeanour offering a template of excellence to all those who observe it. He is also among the most thoughtful Indians alive. Anyone who heard him deliver the 2011 Sir Donald Bradman Oration at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra cannot but have been struck by the clarity of his mind and values, and of his striking qualities as a human being. He was also as elegantly articulate in speech as he was with the bat — classical in technique, deft in footwork.
Read these words from his introduction and you’ll accept that he’d make a high-class representative of India: “Even though there is neither a pitch in sight, nor stumps or bat and balls, as a cricketer, I feel I stand on very sacred ground tonight. When I was told that I would be speaking at the National War Memorial, I thought of how often and how meaninglessly, the words ‘war’, ‘battle’, ‘fight’ are used to describe cricket matches.”
Abdul Kalam showed us how important it is for a president to connect with the young. Dravid would do that, too, and beautifully. He’d also break forever the suffocating grip of geriatric politicians on the presidency of India.
Tunku Varadarajan is the Virginia Hobbs Carpenter Research Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.