India has a new president, Ms Pratibha Patil (photos), the first woman to enter Rashtrapati Bhavan, the presidential palace. It was an event that went uncelebrated barring brave and self-congratulatory noises from her own party, the Indian National Congress that leads a motley and farcical coalition of parties that went to bed with the previous non-Congress government also. Her nomination in the first place was serendipitous coming after the Congress and the comical Left had failed to agree on some leading lights of the ruling party like foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee, home minister Shivraj Patil and human resources development minister Arjun Singh. Eminent scholar Karan Singh’s name also figured in the first list. It is only after the list of men was exhausted it occurred to Congress chief Ms Sonia Gandhi that a woman would bring grace to the office. The woman she selected and her sycophants endorsed is an anonymous woman, a woman of no caliber or merit. An embarrassment to the country for five years.
The election of Ms Patil illustrates the tyranny of numbers and bankruptcy of political judgment. In a democracy numbers prevail but not to the exclusion of sense and dignity. It is an affront to the memory of the earlier tenants of Rashtrapati Bhavan like Dr Rajendra Prasad, Dr S.Radhakrishnan and V.V.Giri. It is a tragedy that Ms Patil succeeds world-known space scientist Abdul Kalam. People welcome a woman but not any woman. If Ms. Gandhi wanted a woman, there is no person among Congress ranks who can match the unsullied credentials of Ms Margaret Alva of the illustrious Alva family. How did Ms Gandhi overlook such a remarkable personality? It is obvious that she wanted a President as pliable as her Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and as servile. Ms Alva does not belong to that category and therefore not eligible in the eyes of Ms Gandhi.
The country had three Presidents representing the minorities, Zakir Hussain, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed (Muslims) and Zail Singh (Sikhs). Ms Margaret Alva, if nominated, would have been the first Christian to occupy that high office without attracting the unseemly controversies that tormented and continue to torment Ms Patil. The question basically is not one of faith. Ms. Gandhi managed to foist a scandal on the country by choosing a woman as afterthought and someone only her neighbors knew.
The very casual manner in which Ms Patil’s name came up and its ready approval by Ms Gandhi’s ever-obliging courtiers shocked the nation. Many eminent men and women, among them veteran columnist Kuldip Nayar, termed the election as a fraud on the nation. The entire comedy of deliberate errors was an inter-party affair shorn of any ingredient of democratic process. Worse still, Ms Patil’s name suggested itself because she had a caste label that would counter the pull of her rival candidate Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, the country’s Vice President at the time of the election. Both the Congress and the Left were so mortally scared of an oppositional victory that they forgot that they had in their middle an eminent jurist Somnath Chatterjee. It is amazing how Congressmen senior in every respect to Sonia Gandhi did not even protest. On the other hand, in the grand tradition of the party they authorized her to name the presidential candidate.
The election process became raucous with parties trading charges and counter-charges and naturally attracted the notice of the foreign press. India’s dirtiest election so far, said the Times, London. A major embarrassment, cried Reuters. Guardian quoted analysts as saying that Ms Patil had been chosen for her loyalty than her talents. A wasted chance to cheer Indian democracy, said the Financial Times. It did not escape the reckoning of the New York Times that Congress party officials were unable to disguise that Ms Patil was a compromise choice. The Economist wrote, “For evidence that there may, after all, be some virtue in dynastic succession, monarchists need look no further than the muddle India is making of choosing its president.”
The opposition Bharatiya Janata Party hurled many charges, criminal and civil, yet to be proved, against Ms Patil. Such acrimony is understandable in a political contest. But the statements she made on the eve of the election will haunt not only her but also her party, the Indian National Congress and the country’s billion people. She offended the minorities by declaring that Indian women began wearing the veil to save themselves from Muslim invaders. She reminded the country of Indira Gandhi’s emergency days by advocating forcible sterilization of people afflicted by hereditary diseases. When she reiterated her faith in divine premonition, she sounded obscurantist. It is a nightmare imagining such a person interacting with visiting heads of state.
The Congress has to explain to the country and its people the compulsions behind this political crime. No political party has questioned the right of the UPA coalition to nominate a person of its own choice. This election reminds one of the nomination of Sitaram Kesari, a Congress foot soldier and loud mouth, as its president, an office occupied by Jawaharlal Nehru, Subhash Chandra Bose and other greats of Indian history. The unprincipled, unstinted and counterproductive support that the Left extends to the coalition is a disgrace to leftism everywhere.
The election also highlighted the extreme opportunism that bugs the Indian political establishment that is a hazard even in the short run for the health of democracy. The Shiv Sena, a partner in the Bharatiya Janata Party, supported the nominee of its worst enemy because the nominee happened to be Maharashtrian. A hurried election-eve collection of out-of-job political parties, abstained from voting, first time in the country’s history. Some legislators flouted its directive and participated in the poll. There was a lot of cross-voting. All this was redundant because the ruling alliance had numbers on its side.
Abdul Kalam added luster and dignity to the office and came to be called the people’s president. The country now has a presidency in which the people have lost faith. That is what a CCN-IBN poll showed, 92 per cent of the pollsters saying yes to a question: Has the public lost faith in the presidency.