Pranab right choice but… Crucial issues remain unanswered

Poonam I Kaushish

Political campaigns are designedly made into emotional orgies which try to distract attention from real issues. This adage rings true looking at the political shenanigans in the on-going Presidential election. A pot boiler of close door Machiavellian quid-pro-qous deals, smacking of feigned hurt, parochialism et al. Reducing it to cross between a popularity contest and a debate, with an encyclopedia of clichés thrown in!

Sadly, in a milieu wherein this Presidential poll is being viewed as a precursor to the likely realignment of political forces, ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Parties are thriving by exploiting the communal, caste, creed and region cards to garner votes and expand its share on India’s political map.

Undisputedly, with numbers stacked for UPA candidate Pranab Mukherjee, the poll has been reduced to a one-horse race vis-à-vis his BJD-AIADMK- BJP-Akali rival Purno Sangma, yet it has raised some basic issues regarding the election of India’s Head of State. Questions which may become crucial in the emerging trend of coalition Governments, fractured polity and growth of regional Parties.

Namely, should the President be elected on a Party basis? Two, should caste consideration weigh in selecting the Presidential candidate? Three, should the President be indebted to political Parties for his election?

Take the first, why should the electorate for the President’s office be required to vote on Party lines and be reduced to a game of one-upmanship, egos and majority power, Pranab’s 80% majority to Sangma’s 3.10 lakh votes. That this has been the practice in earlier elections is no excuse.

Shockingly, starting with the Mamata-Mulayam Abdul Kalam bombshell, down Congress lobbing Mukherjee and striking a midnight deal with Mulayam who back-stabbed both Mamata and Kalam, to the bratty and churlish BJP hooting for BJD-AIADMK candidate former Lok Sabha Speaker Purno Sangma simply because the Congress did not consult it earlier smacks of nothing but inane and dirty politics. Notwithstanding, by doing so the Hindutva brigade has cut its nose to spite its face with both the JD(U) and Shiv Sena backing Pranabda.

True, Parties have every right to search, select and elect the best person as President by advising, canvassing and persuading their respective elected MPs and MLAs. But there should be no compulsions or pressures. The Presidential and Vice Presidential Elections Act, 1952, specifically prohibits the exercise of ‘undue influence’ in such elections. In fact, Section 13 of the Act expressedly makes the commission of offence of ‘undue influence’ as an offence under Section 171 of the IPC. As also, a specific ground on which the election of the President/Vice President could be challenged.

On the issue of the Presidential candidate’s credentials, India has traversed a long way. From being an Indian citizen 61 years ago, it has now percolated down to various isms: caste, creed or region. True, the practice of having the two highest offices adorned by persons from the North and South is healthy, but certainly not at the cost of compromising on the best qualified persons to hold them.

Undeniably, Mukherjee is eminently qualified to be the country’s 13th President. A scholar-turned-politician who became a Central Minister in Indira Gandhi’s Cabinet, he has served subsequent Congress Prime Ministers capping 45-years run in politics. Politically savvy exuding earthy humility, robust commonsense and good humour he has won friends across the political spectrum.

Alas, Pranabda’s impeccable credentials are being overshadowed by the umbrella of regional parochialism. Bengali Mukherjee’s versus North-Eastern and tribal Sangma. For reasons best known to it, the Congress is highlighting his Bengali identity to create an impression that Bengalis, read Mamata’s Trinimool by not endorsing Mukherjee’s candidature would be going against the Bengali sentiment.

Sangma too is busy trumpeting his dual identity of being a tribal leader and Christian and calling for a “conscience vote.” How will making tribal Sangma the President alleviate the tribals’ lot and annihilate all their pain and suffering? It’s all very well to grant reservations in jobs and legislatures, but to use this right for the Presidential office is offensive. It tantamounts to retreating into the past under the garb of promoting inclusiveness in our democracy.

Indeed, if Mukherjee is just a Bengali and Sangma only a tribal Christian why should others with different identities support them? Thus in this all pervasive culture, our Presidents have come to be slotted and remembered not for their wisdom but as being South-Indian, Muslim, Brahmin, Dalit, woman and now belonging to a particular State.

Gone are the days, when people looked upon S Radhakrishnan as a philosopher statesman not as a Tamilian. Rajendra Prasad was never called a Bihari but known as a freedom fighter against British colonial rule. Neither was Kalam viewed as a Muslim but a great scientist who took India’s defence capabilities to new heights.

Lastly, should a President be seen to be beholden to any Party? Not at all. The Constitution is clear: The President has to be above Party politics to discharge his functions as per the Statute, and not follow the diktat of any Party. His position should not be used as a loyalty test, a reward or compensation. Neither should a candidate be accused of lobbying with Parties to support his or her candidature. As once elected he has to shed all political robes and should be recognized for his statesmanship, integrity, catholicity of mind and non-sectarian approach.

Clearly, answers to these issues are vital. The polity has evolved in a fashion that makes the Presidential office a lot more than ceremonial with minority Governments, post-poll coalitions coupled with the fickle loyalty of politicians who keep everything in a flux. Remember, AIADMK’s Jayalalitha cheethi aayee hai drama in the late nineties.

In sum, it is high time the institutional sanctity of the office is safeguarded. The country wants a President of the highest personal integrity, who adheres to the spirit of the Constitution, rather than its letter and acts as the nation’s “conscience-keeper”. He should have the guts to speak his mind out on matters that concern the aam aadmi and not hesitate to send Bills back to the Cabinet for reconsideration, in case of disagreement.

In this 24X7 channel age, what India needs is a President who does not have an ostrich-like approach, but one who will engage with his Government on issues concerning the citizens well being and fulfil his Constitutional obligations without fear or favour.

Pranabda will have to give all it takes to balance the ever-growing inherent contradiction within our polity. Address basic questions vital to the growth of India’s nascent democracy. Perhaps revive JP’s call for a “Partyless democracy”. The country has had enough of tokenisms which hold out zero benefits for the people. (INFA)