A shop in the outer circle of Connaught Place in the Capital will be expecting a commission sometime in the next few months. It makes the rubber stamps that the new president of India will use to mark assent or otherwise to laws that have been presented by governments in the states or at the centre for approval. Making an impression with the rubber stamp is among the key constitutional duties of the country’s head of state. Of course, there is another, more critical, duty that the president has to perform when a general election throws up an uncertain verdict. In which case, it would be good to have your man or woman in place two years ahead of such an eventuality coming to pass. Or so seems to be the thinking that guides political parties. They are, as usual, putting politics above country.
Given that there is a better than even chance of the electoral verdict being unclear in 2014, the next president of India has to have the strength of mind and character to be dispassionate and non-partisan. That alone would disqualify finance minister Pranab Mukherjee, who’s been an entirely political individual throughout his public life and whose handling of the ministry has been riddled with controversy, among the latest of these being a retrospective tax amendment that’s been characterized as a bully changing the rules of the game because he can’t win fair and square.
The office of the president, much devalued though it has been in recent years, therefore, needs to be occupied by someone who embodies excellence and has national or even international stature. That would inevitably take the search beyond the world of politics to someone who can be looked up to by the people of this country, someone who has a stake in India and in the idea of India but is definitely not beholden to any political grouping. By this reckoning, there are enough people from the worlds of science, the humanities and elsewhere who would be natural candidates for the post but who would certainly baulk at being the candidate of any particular party.
The other suggestion of the Congress for the post—vice-president Hamid Ansari—has been opposed by the Bharatiya Janata Party on the grounds that it will vote against whoever is fielded by the ruling party. Ansari is a seasoned diplomat, who can assume the duties of high office with ease but doesn’t seem to have won the main opposition party over with his handling of the Rajya Sabha.
The Congress strategy of suggesting two candidates—Mukherjee and Ansari—seems to have achieved the limited objective of dividing the opposition, with the BJP’s allies not too happy with its unilateral decision to reject them both. While the finance minister’s candidature looks like a red herring, since election to the post would mark the end of his career in politics, putting forward the vice-president’s name—a Muslim and a former diplomat—seems to smack of tokenism and political convenience, the same that marked the selection of cricketer Sachin Tendulkar for a position in the Rajya Sabha.
While the contest is still months away, the fight may be boiling down to this—if the Congress nominates Ansari, the BJP will put forward former president A.P.J. Abdul Kalam; it may not really have a choice. If the first of these moves doesn’t take place, then all bets are off. India’s political parties, however, seem to be ignoring one key lesson from the polls in Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere. Muslims don’t particularly care for window-dressing any more (if they ever did). What they’re really keen on is schools where they can get a good education and then worthwhile jobs, aspirations in which they’re no different from anyone else in this country. The community’s long-standing representatives may suggest otherwise but they would be wrong. Having a Muslim president may be good PR but it’s a meaningless gesture.
The country has had three Muslim presidents of varying stature (excluding M. Hidayatullah who served for a few months, pending the election of V.V. Giri in 1969). Of these, Zakir Hussain’s credentials for the post were impeccable as was his deportment in office, although he had served only two years of his five-year term when he died in 1969. Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, whatever else his achievements, has gone down in history as the president who couldn’t stand up to Indira Gandhi’s imposition of the emergency in 1975. He died in 1977 after serving three years. Kalam was picked by the BJP because it needed to erase the taint of the Gujarat riots in 2002. Still, regardless of his merits as a scientist or as a writer, Kalam didn’t do anything to lower the dignity of the office. And, while some of the versifying could have been avoided, he was generally liked by people.
The election has turned into a test of strength, coming just after assembly polls that have seen the ruling party being bested by smaller parties. For some of them, this provides an ideal platform to see where things could stand in the general election due in two years. For others, it’s an opportunity to extract their pound of flesh. Everyone has skin in the game, it seems, except the people of the country.
Nabeel Mohideen is Senior Editor at Mint.
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