Presidential election loses its dignity and gravitas?

Is democracy only a numbers game? If so, then, is politics is all about mere political survival for some persons or some families?

It looks Sonia Gandhi’s approach to matters of high state, the legacy of the Congress party and its ideals and much else seems to be coming under increased strain. To make matters worse for the stature and maturity of Indian democracy, are the other parties, including the BJP and the smaller parties that seem to thrive on a very narrow agenda of self-survival and also to cling on to power by adopting the most cynical and negative approach to what should be a highly moral positioning when it comes to high Constitutional offices.

It looks the current faces of Presidential candidates, be it Mrs.Pratiba Patil or Bhairon Singh Shekhawat or even the current incumbent, Abdul Kalam who has surprisingly expressed his interest to contest and wait for some more days had only added to the emerging confusion. Whose name is being bandied about by the newly formed Third Front, are all honourable names otherwise but now made to look like masks for real politics of the narrow and cynical leaders who lead the parties in the current scenario.
Does the Congress party stand for any high principles? Or, the BJP has an alternative vision for India? Or, for that matter, the various smaller parties, both national and the regional parties are being driven by national interest and national dignity?

The most inexplicable are the so-called “progressive” parties, CPM and CPI and others with tags like socialist or other such names! Why, these parties have only made matters worse by rejecting more qualified candidates and then falling to the trap by the Congress to go for what is widely perceived to be a low profile and low key candidate. The only gratifying argument is the candidate happens to be a woman! Is this all to India’s Presidency? One wonders!

What is supposed to be an election process that is about the dignity and gravitas of the high office of the President of India has suddenly become trivialised by the major political parties in India. The lead was given by the Congress party that suddenly threw off the established conventions and beliefs and went for a candidate who was the least qualified in the perception of the party’s rank and file and also in the public eye.

Mr.Shivraj Patil, the home minister, is surely not the man with the requisite stature as said by one and all.
This also saw Mrs.Sonia Gandhi’s own insecurities and she rejected all the claims of the more seniors in her party and they also didn’t hide their disquiet about her first choice. The final choice saw an unknown woman candidate whose only claim to the post is that she is a woman. In the given atmosphere of political correctness, it is extremely embarrassing to comment on her choice. That is likely to be misconstrued as a slur on the dignity of women in general and also about questioning the supposed trend towards women empowerment.

So, the country waited for  two days before another woman leader, this time, the supremo of the All Indian Anna Dravida Kazhagam, Ms.Jayalalitha calling the choice of Mrs.Patil as” the joke  sprung on the nation by Sonia Gandhi”.

Anyway, the Third Front composing of the 8 regional parties wanted to have its own candidate and they could only come out in favour of Dr.Abdul Kalam, the present incumbent for a second term.

It is unlikely he would oblige, given his known stance of considering only where there is a national consensus. This is unlikely to come this time.
The current Presidential election process has generated an unusual political interest and very likely a sudden fall in the standards of public life and public morality.

One, there is the choice of a woman candidate. The choice was not normal. There was intense partisan interest. Sonia Gandhi indicated her mind very early in the election and her choice fell on the now unfortunate Shivraj Patil, the home minister. He was seen from the start by the very inner circles of the Congress as a very unsuitable candidate, his record was poor and his only qualification was his supposed loyalty to Mrs.Gandhi. This became a source of much bitterness within the Congress party itself. The whisper campaign began from the very beginning. So too the allies, in particular, the Nationalist Congress Party of Sharad Pawar expressed openly against Patil. But Mrs.Gandhi seemed adament. Then, the pressures started to build up within the allies themselves, the Left came out openly against him and opted for the External Affairs Minister Mr.Pranad Mukerjee who was seen even by those within the Congress as the natural choice, given his long innings in the government.

But Mrs.Gandhi showed particular vehemence against Mr.Mukerjee. Any other politician in his place might have revolted, given the snub so outwardly applied to him! In 1975 Mr.Jagjivan Ram, the then powerful member of Mrs.Indira Gandhi’s Cabinet resigned from the Cabinet once the Emergency plan was announced to the Cabinet without the Cabinet being given a chance to debate it. But we seem to be living in different times. Any snub even if it is given so bluntly doesn’t seem to blunt the conscience of modern day Congressmen or Congress women! They have all come to Delhi to make a career. So, what is the need for resigning and losing the jobs! So, Mr.Mukerjee was just forced to issue two statements denying his intention to run for the President! Poor man!

So, the choice of Shivraj Patil circulated for few more days. As M.J.Akbar, the editor of the Asian Age argued the first choice of Mr.Patil was not for his merit as such but for his “use” in 2009 when he, as the President could call the “right” person for the “right job”!

And it was only when Mrs.Gandhi met the Left leaders she found resistance to her ideas and she had to swallow her pride and go for a “dark horse”!
She realised it was no easy job. Her authority didn’t run beyond her courtiers. The Left, though did a brave job of rejecting Patil, they didn’t have the courage, and I mean the moral courage to force the candidature of Mukerjee either. The Left is always good in blocking any positive policy or a choice of a candidate like the present instant. So, they were also met with a deft move by Sonia and her advisers. They threw other names, oh, what a pioty, the great Congress leaders found their names bandied about by persons who simply didn’t regard them in any serious manner but used their names to hide their own discomforts! So, in all some 14 names went, up and down, in the brief session the Left had with Mrs.Gandhi. One after another, they were all rejected or cast aside. Even a good man like Karan Singh,a much favoured candidate with all requisite qualifications-stature, learning and a non-partisan image and a great personality and of course a royal lineage, a distinguished leader from Jammu &  Kashmir must have found favour with the party leaders who wanted to invest the Rashtrapathi Bhavan with some aura of grandeur. But alas! It was the last thought on the minds of the “selectors”! They were clearly in search for a person who would be a rubber stamp and that was what prompted them to go for a woman candidate and that too to withstand the onslaught of the Left to stop Patil at all costs. The Left thought they had won the first round that is by rejecting the loyalty factor that drove Mrs.Gandhi to choose the low-profile Mrs. Patil.

When she found that she was left with not much room to maneuver Mrs.Gandhi was given the name of Mrs.Pratibha Patil, a dark horse then and now, and the Left was also left with not much room but fall in line.

Thus, the choise the Presidential candidate this time was not built around, first, any objective criteria. No qualification was enough except the total loyalty to the UPA chairperson. Second, there must be a candidate from the Congress, not the best but the  least qualified in terms that were set out by everyone in the party or from outside in the Left.

As Prof. Bhanu Pratap Mehta of the Centre for Developing Societies, New Delhi wrote in the Indian Express the next day, the choice of the Presidential candidate was not driven by any reasonable criteria, or by any positive thoughts. Not by any high moral principles either. Instead of the democratic process throwing up all the best courses, the democratic process in this instance saw all the known principles suppressed willfully by the schemers and driven by the lowest common denominator! That is the crucial aspect of the choice of the Presidential candidate this time!

Now, after having chosen a woman as the candidate, there is  a scramble for taking credit for who brought Mrs.Patil’s name first! The Prime Minister even claims so. So too Mr.Ahmed Patel who advises Mrs.Gandhi in these matters. Also, others are also the claimants!

At least, the PM might have taken the opportunity and might have mentioned such names like Prof.Amartya Sen, the Nobel Laureate for this high office. At least some such names might have led to some open debates and some healthy understanding of what sort of an office is the President of India. No! No such noble thoughts crossed anybody’s mind! All they were doing was to enable Mrs.Gandhi to get out of her dilemma, this time.

So, the Congress party with just 145 members in the Lok Sabha and leading an alliance that is composed of all sorts of parties and ideologies and yet the common thread that binds them was the crass selfishness of the leaders who, lately have demonstrated   an unalloyed self-aggrandisement to promote their progeny into high offices, be it the Rajya Sabha or the Cabinet itself. In fact, there are indications they are now doing the rounds of “consultations’ not in a true democratic spirit of evolving any honest consensus but consensus in the guise of a quid pro quo!”We say yes to you now, so that you have to say yes to us tomorrow, may be when we ask for a minister’s job for our son or daughter or some other requests”! So, this is consensus building?

This is the tragedy of Indian democracy as it is being practised now.
Now, this Presidential election is going to be unusual for some other reasons also.

No consensus candidate this time!
There is obviously no consensus candidate this time. That is the first development.

Even last time, there was the figment of a consensus at least. Dr.A.P.J.Abdul Kalam had at least an image of a non-party man, a non-partisan and his stature was high enough and he got the consensus without the parties bargaining less than one pretext or other. That much stature he had.
This time, the choice was not so unanimous even for Mrs.Patil. She was the last choice, the last-ditch choice, if we can say so without casting any doubt about her intrinsic worth on her own terms.

The argument that she is a woman candidate is worthy enough, if she had been chosen openly or consciously at the first round. To that extent, we have to make some qualifications. Yet, it is a welcome development and a first woman President would only add to the stature of our standing in the world.
Now, the BJP is going to vote for Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, the Vice-President, and (VP) who would contest as an Independent candidate, given the divisions in the polity. The Third Front would also come in, fielding a candidate of its own, just to register their presence, given the bitterness there is among the Third Front partners.
Now, the question is raised: is it fair on the part of the VP to contest, given the lineup of parties?

Why not?

VP is a veteran politician, he has stature and experience and he has friends across the political spectrum and he had expressed his wish long ago and he did the rounds of visits, he called on Jyoti Basu and also others. So, his intentions cant be described by any stretch of imagination as unworthy of a man of his stature. It is only argued how far his candidature can be taken as an “independent”? Yes, he is a veteran BJP leader but once he became the VP, he resigned from the party and as Chairman of the Rajya Sabha he demonstrated that he is above party interests. Once a party leader resigns and assumes a non-party post and that too as the Vice-President of India, it is a matter that has to be looked at so and no motives have to be attributed to one’s  intention to contest such a high election as an independent candidate. So, the argument that Mr.Shekhawat cant context as an independent falls to the ground. And he has every right to context and it is good that in place of a candidate, who is still considered not having enough stature, a man of stature like Mr.Shekhawat must stand and he has every right to test the waters.

Election is an election and who knows the outcome of any election and that too in this case, given the current bitterness that has been generated within the Congress party itself where very seniors are overlooked just for the simple reason of not passing the loyalty test!

So, there is some unusual excitement in the current Presidential contest.
Yes, the Rashtrapathi Bhavan is not a source of rival centre of power or influence. Also, there can’t be two opinions that in case a candidate who contests against the official candidate of the ruling combine then it would amount to a no-confidence vote. Yes, that is right. Once such an unexpected development takes place, the outcome is clear. The ruling combine has to resign and an alternative government has to be formed. That is all clear. Even then, the argument that no candidate can contest against the official candidate doesn’t hold water.

As the Hindu newspaper wrote in its editorial “Ideally, the country’s first citizen should be elected by a national consensus. But political contests for the office, always a reality, have taken on a sharper edge this time, given the polity is fractured”

It is also argued that in case Mr.Shekhawat contests, his very presence in the race would induce cross voting. Yes, it is a possibility. But even then it doesn’t amount to dissuading a candidate of the stature of Mr.Shekhawat not trying out!

Even the otherwise reluctant Third Front spokesman, Ram Gopal Yadav, was forced to admit that “although SP respected Mrs.Patil as Rajasthan Governor, her stature was “not as high” as that of Mr.Shekhawat”.

In fact, what is at stake here is the case factor. Since Mrs.Patil is married into a Shekhawat family, the caste factor, it is argued might be neutralised this time. May be. But then the respective statures of the personalities in the contest might also play their parts. Party loyalties are very important in a democracy. But then we can’t stretch this argument beyond some limit. Party loyalties are built over time. In some cases, like the present one, party loyalties are thin, when everyone in the major party is inside it for the sole reason of pocketing some cushy job or other, not for party loyalty alone. The Congress party, a 122 year old party has seen so many twists and turns in its long history. As it is today, as it is organised and held together today, there are more loyal Congressmen outside the favour of the leader of her coterie, rather than they are all respected and given due recognition and place in the party. Mr.G.Venkatasamy, the senior dalit leader in Parliament has given out his pouring about how he was once favoured for the post of President and also signed by a majority of MPs when Indira Gandhi was alive and he is now simply dumped in favour of Mr.Sushil Kumar Shinde, another hot favourite till the other day!

Yes, senior members of the party and long time loyalists are pushed outside and the very narrow power-seeking elite and time servers are favoured. In such a confused political environment, to speak of political loyalty and also party discipline is a bit of a wishful thinking.

All these thoughts don’t mean that we have to go in this time for a confused voting process. Rather the contrary should be the goal.T here has to be party discipline and party loyalties are priorities.

But then the party leaders also have to take the moral responsibility for undermining the time-honoured values and established principles of conduct in a mature and a democratic and open society. The latent cynicism in the political system is unlikely to contribute to any new maturity of the polity.

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