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Asian Tribune is published by E-LANKA MEDIA(PVT)Ltd. Vol. 20 No. 104

The Presidential Race

By Chandramohan - Syndicate Features

The road to the magnificent palace on Raisina Hill in Lutyen’s New Delhi is straight and smooth though a bit steep. The incumbent after July would have, however, reached

Rashtrapati Bhavan after negotiating many twists and turns, rather like the daily travels of Delhiites amidst scenes of chaos and confusion on the city’s broad avenues.

In the end the much-hyped ‘Shekhawat vs. Shekhawat’ fight may well be an anti-climax, with ‘Mrs Shekhawat’ emerging a clear winner. If the race is triangular it might be ‘tough’ for Pratibha Patil. But both the arithmetic and the politics of the Presidential poll hint that the UPA-BSP-Left nominee, Pratibha Patil, would be able to trounce the BJP-NDA’s independent candidate, the Vice President, Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, in a direct fight and if there is one more candidate in the fray it might be even easier for her.

With Pratibha Patil’s victory India will have its first woman President. But this noticeable gender march would have been achieved after a fight in which each of the three main political groupings were seen to be more keen to play politics than be serious about electing a person for the country’s highest constitutional post.

The ruling Congress party and its allies in the UPA juggled with a few names; one Congress candidate, Pranab Mukherjee, who the party was reluctant to field appealed to the Left parties so much that they would not hear of UPA even thinking of anyone else. The ruling party was forced to look afresh and then trumped the adamant Left with Pratibha’s name, leaving the comrades to defend the ‘last minute’ choice of the Congress.

Knowing from the start that its candidate will have little chance of winning the race, the BJP-led NDA entered the fray by putting up its candidate, Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, as an ‘Independent’, hoping unrealistically that this ploy will persuade the ‘secular’ electorate of MPs and MLAs to support Shekhawat, a long time RSS man.

Not to be left behind in the race, the newly formed Third Front fist quickly christened itself United National Progressive Alliance (UNPA), which sounds like an amalgamation of UPA and NDA, and announced that it wanted President APJ Kalam re-elected, even though the latter had earlier rejected the idea of standing for the Presidential poll.

Worried that Kalam might embarrass the group of fallen political stalwarts by refusing to contest, the UNPA succeeded in persuading him to issue a vague statement that he would contest if it was made sure that he would win. In other words Kalam said he should be accepted as the consensus candidate of the three major political groupings.

Consensus on his name was clearly out of the question. This had the shrewd politician Shekhawat, a one-time policeman, worried as he would be forced to take on ‘Mrs Shekhawat’ in a direct fight. So he floated the idea that he could bow out of the contest if Kalam became the consensus candidate. Clearly, it was a ploy to wriggle out of the contest because without the backing of the regional parties in the Third Front Shekhawat would have no chance of winning even if some from the UPA-Left and the Third Front exercised their ‘conscience’ and voted for him.

In the meanwhile, the Congress-UPA-Left candidate made an embarrassing political gaffe even before she had formally entered the race. Pratibha Patil became an instant historian to pronounce on the origins of the Purdah system in India. Her remarks that Purdah was a reaction to the Moghul rule may not alter her ‘chances’ but somebody will have to tell her that a person aspiring for the highest post in the land has to be more extremely discreet in public pronouncements and curb the desire to interpret history to suit the audience.

The arithmetic for the Presidential poll favours Pratibha Patil, whose husband is a Shekhawat originally from a village 40 km from Bhairon Singh’s native place in Rajasthan’s Sikar district. BJP kept up a brave face by pinning hopes on the ability of the old political fox to use his poaching skill to get votes from the rival camps. And poaching in the Presidential poll is not illegal.

The BJP’s political posturing cannot neutralise the advantage of nearly 100,000 votes enjoyed by Pratibha Patil. Secondly, if cross voting is going to be an important factor how can it be assumed that those who have put up Pratibha cannot do a similar exercise? There is too much at stake in the Presidential contest: Her loss can lead to either a change in government or mid-term polls. But if she wins by a margin narrower than what the party equations or arithmetic would commend it might cause some flutter, but will not basically alter the status quo.

The BJP may also have wasted its breath in talking about Pratibha Patil’s ‘main asset’ of ‘loyalty’ to the first family of the Congress, or that she was not the ‘first choice’ of the Congress. Politicians know that it is not always easy to agree on the ‘first choice’ for any post. Also, Pratibha Patil may not be the ‘best’ choice but it cannot be denied that it has helped the ruling combine to tout her selection as a sort of triumph for Indian women.

The criticism that it is nothing more than tokenism will not sway votes in favour of Shekhawat, though it can barely be denied that no particular group or community has ever benefited merely because someone from the group or community was installed in a high post.

The enthusiasm for ‘consensus’ candidate sounds like a lot of hot air. There have been very few ‘consensus’ Presidential candidates in the past. The search for a ‘consensus’ candidate has become nearly impossible today when political parties are more comfortable with confrontation rather than conciliation. The near fatal attraction of most politicians and political parties for the TV cameras has also made it impossible for various parties to agree to one candidate since ‘consensus’ cannot be reached under the glare of arc lights.

The BJP cannot hide its own chicanery in fielding Bhairon Singh Shekhwat as an ‘Independent’. Ironically, the BJP cannot pin much hopes on attracting the ‘secular’ and ‘caste’ votes for Shekhawat when one of its own allies, rather a clone, the Shiv Sena, has refused to back Shekhawat. Another BJP ally in the NDA, the Trinamul Congress, has openly announced that its ‘first’ choice was Kalam, not the official NDA candidate.

The UPA candidate being a political lightweight is another matter that was highlighted. The CPI (M) angrily rejected a popular clamour for a non-politician as the President. For the BJP any candidate who looks less than friendly to it is a political lightweight. Sitting in the Opposition for the last three years, the BJP has shown distaste for debating issues in Parliament. Instead, it has set a new trend of rushing to the Rashtrapati Bhavan with all manner of grievances to the President. This looks like a dangerous attempt to politicise the office of the President of India.

The constitution and convention have made it clear that the President of India will not be a political creature who can become a centre for friction with the government. At least once in the past India did have a President who acted like a politician, raising political temperatures in the country, particularly in a border state. It has been assumed that a ‘non-political’ President cannot resonate with the conscience of the country while, say, returning a controversial bill.

The outgoing President was never in politics but he did apply his mind on occasions to controversial matters that were brought before him. It goes to his credit that he did not make it look like he was challenging the government. The country needs a President who acts with dignity and exercises his/her powers impartially—and certainly desists from putting his or her foot in the mouth. Those with an active and high profile political background do not necessarily fit the bill.

- Syndicate Feature -

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