A lot has been made of the fact that UPA presidential candidate Pratibha Patil could become the country’s first female head of state. Patil was pushed to the frontline only after the partners in the ruling alliance could not agree on any other name. She is the accidental candidate—and the fact that she is a woman is now being used by the UPA spin doctors to justify Sonia Gandhi’s last- minute decision.
Yet, the torrent of criticism that has flowed unabated after Patil’s candidature was announced has been hasty, unfair and in bad taste. The first criticism has been that hers is a political appointment. Those who offer this as a serious objection are merely kidding themselves. There has not been a single president since 1969 who did not owe his crown to overt politics.
The second major grouse that has been voiced and written about is that Patil has no major achievement to her credit. That is not quite true, as some of the more thoughtful commentators have pointed out. She was elected to the Maharashtra legislature at the young age of 27 and became a minister five years later. Since then, she has held varied ministerial posts in Maharashtra. Her tenure as Rajasthan governor, too, has not been a washout. Some say she has done her job with grace and distinction. She held back the state’s controversial anti-conversion Bill, for example. These may not add up to towering achievements, but they are no better or worse than what the others in the running can boast of.
It is here that the third issue comes up—that she is an unknown. This has been the typical response of Delhi’s chattering classes and its hack pack. Hidden somewhere in this is the assumption that the presidency should be offered to someone who is in “national” politics, which is the rather grand term for a job in the Union government.
We have gone through the CVs of the past eight presidents, from V.V. Giri onwards. There is not a single instance of a president who did not have a stint in the Union government, though each then followed different meandering paths to Rashtrapati Bhavan. Giri and Shankar Dayal Sharma held governorships. N. Sanjeeva Reddy was in opposition. A few held vice-presidentships. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, as most people know, was not a minister but an adviser to the then prime minister.
The point is that most of these worthies moved from one house in Delhi to another; the others were Union ministers earlier in their careers. They thus had visibility in the Capital city.
This is what makes Patil unique. She has never been a minister at the Centre and, other than a short stint in the Rajya Sabha, has been a state-level politician. That also explains her relative anonymity among those who pretend to speak for the entire nation—a factor that has led to some of the most patronizing reactions to her candidature.
Patil is likely to become the first president who comes from the subnational level, which is welcome in a system that is officially federal. None of this is to deny that she is in the running because her leader says so, but it is unfair to hang her for family or party loyalty and let the other candidates go scot-free.
The middle class and the nation’s intellectuals would perhaps have liked someone such as Amartya Sen or N.R. Narayana Murthy to become the next president. This is a worthy hope. These two good and great men are of the same class as S. Radhakrishnan and Kalam.
But presidential elections have always been about raw politics. Few remember that there was a third candidate in the 1969 race. Without political muscle, C.D. Deshmukh, former governor of the Reserve Bank of India, finance minister for five years in the Jawaharlal Nehru cabinet and a first-rate intellectual, came a distant third. Some things never change.
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