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Electing Pratibha Patil the next Rashtrapati

Wednesday 4 July 2007, by KHARE*Harish

The Constitution of India envisages a limited role for the President. There is no need to overload the presidential contest with partisan bitterness.

Yashwant Sinha, who was Finance Minister for three years in the National Democratic Alliance government, has just published a memoir of sorts entitled Confessions Of A Swadeshi Reformer. Towards the end of the book, Mr. Sinha devotes 20 pages (204-224) to cataloguing what he perceives as a slew of unfair allegations against him during his tenure as Union Finance Minister. He ruefully talks of “personal attacks”; laments that “some very nasty pieces were written against me in a section of the media at that time [the second UTI crisis].”

Of the Mauritius Treaty controversy (in which his daughter-in-law was alleged to have been involved), Mr. Sinha says: “it was made to appear as if I was involved in a huge scandal. I called the media to inform them that my daughter-in-law was just an employee of the company and not its owner. Her remuneration was as per her terms of employment. The matter was blown all out of proportion ...” Mr. Sinha concludes: “I personally felt greatly hurt by the Mauritius controversy. Not only were the allegations farthest from the truth, a section of the media went out of its way to malign me. ‘Ek adesh se vitt mantri ne apne bahu ko crorepati bana diya’ [Through just one order the finance minister has made his daughter-in-law a millionaire] screamed a headline in a Hindi newspaper.” Regarding another controversy, the Flex Industries case, he was piqued that not only did one a newspaper blow an innocuous transaction totally out of proportion, a year later it even celebrated the anniversary of the so-called expose. He sadly concludes: “Such is life.

One wonders what Mr. Sinha must be making of all the inspired mud-slinging campaign against the United Progressive Alliance presidential candidate, Pratibha Patil. He cannot possibly be unaware that the tawdry campaign is being instigated by a Cabinet colleague of his.

The same hit and run tactics, the same use of innuendos, and the same assumption of guilt by association that Mr. Sinha regrets are being practised by his political colleagues. The prevailing political and journalistic cultures have converged to demean the contest for the Republic’s highest office. Rather than making Ms. Patil or for that matter her rival Bhairon Singh Shekhawat spell out their respective understanding of the President’s role under the Constitution, the Bharatiya Janata Party and its professional mud-slingers have remained content to launder district-level pettiness, antagonisms, and quarrels as the centre-piece of their campaign to garner votes for Mr. Shekhawat. Never before has the polity been subjected to such a low strategy of character assassination, that too against the first potential woman President, and that too when the NDA knows that Mr. Shekhawat has no chance whatsoever of making it to Rashtrapati Bhavan.

Why, then, this cultivated cussedness? At a superficial level, it is easy to conclude that the NDA managers want to have the satisfaction that Sonia Gandhi has been shown to have made “a poor choice.” Ms. Patil is further being sought to be condemned just because she has been “picked” by the Congress president. The argument, as George Fernandes wrote to the Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray, is: “You have always maintained, quite rightly, that you were against a foreign-born person occupying a constitutional post for reasons of crucial national interest. Today, you are succumbing to the wishes of the Italian-born who did not even care to become a citizen for 15 years.

Interestingly enough the same charge of being a “rubber stamp” was hurled against the hapless Shivraj Patil, Ms. Gandhi’s presumed first choice. The suggestion was that he was too plaint to be President, meaning that once elected to Rashtrapati Bhavan he would have no hesitation in doing Ms. Gandhi’s bidding. It was in fact the same campaign of being a “rubber stamp” that was kept up by the BJP crowd against Prime Minister Manmohan Singh; if anything, three years later, the judgment is that the Congress party and its president are not exerting themselves enough in setting the tone and tenor of the UPA government.

The innuendo is since Ms. Patil is Ms. Gandhi’s hand-picked nominee, she would somehow not be able to live up to the level of presidential autonomy and detachment that, say, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam was supposed to have shown. The conspiracy theorists have even decided who would be “foisted” as secretary to Ms. Patil once she gets elevated to Rashtrapati Bhavan.

The heart of the matter is that the BJP would rather convert Rashtrapati Bhavan into an antagonistic institution. The mythology that the sangh parivar has cultivated would have it that Ms. Gandhi was prompted to “renounce” the prime ministerial crown by President Kalam asking some inconvenient questions on May 18, 2004. In fact, on May 19, 2004, Rashtrapati Bhavan issued a brief press release (available at www.presidentofindia.nic.in): “It has been reported in a section of the press that the President Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam had discussed the citizenship issue with Srimati Sonia Gandhi when she met him yesterday at Rashtrapati Bhavan. This is contrary to facts. It did not figure in the discussions at all.” The worst scenario the BJP leadership has painted for itself is that come May 2009, a President Patil would have no qualms in swearing in Ms. Gandhi as Prime Minister.

Ever since their unexpected defeat in the May 2004 Lok Sabha poll, the BJP leaders have relied primarily on the judiciary and the President to slow down the newly elected government. At the drop of a hat, the NDA leaders are prone to trooping up the Raisina Hill and using the Rashtrapati Bhavan forecourt to fling partisan charges at the government. The NDA leaders’ low campaign against Ms. Patil is primarily an expression of their helplessness in the choice of the next President, even though the NDA does command a not-so-inconsequential political presence in the country.

Indeed it is an old itch to want to use the presidency to tame the Prime Minister and to produce a stalemate in the governing arrangement at the Centre. The right wing in India — the old Swatantra Party and the Bharatiya Jana Sangh — was never fully converted to the logic and rationale of a democratic order, and sought to suborn constitutional institutions to frustrate the popular will. The first attempt to use the presidency for narrow party purposes was in the 1967 presidential election when the sitting Chief Justice of India was inveigled into accepting the opposition’s offer to become a candidate. Chief Justice Subba Rao, who had just delivered the Golaknath case judgment, was the chosen instrument of the Right to checkmate “socialist” Indira Gandhi.

Chief Justice Subba Rao’s decision to meet, discuss, and accept the opposition’s offer to become its presidential candidate brought an instant rebuke from Motilal Chimanlal Setalvad, the finest jurist India has produced: “It appears that the outgoing Chief Justice of India has, in the matter of the Presidential election, acted with grave judicial impropriety; he has set at naught traditions which have governed the judiciary in our country for over a century.” Since then the political virus has infected individual judges while Rashtrapati Bhavan has periodically been sought to be converted into a rival centre of power.

The real danger is that having injected such a low level of partisanship in the presidential campaign, the BJP and its allies will not be able to summon the requisite grace to accept their nominee’s defeat with becoming humility and equanimity. The bitterness should not be allowed to spill over into Ms. Patil’s presidential innings. Rites of partisanship cannot be allowed to acquire a life of their own.

And that is the crux of the matter. Once elected, the President is deemed to be above partisan affiliations and loyalties. The President has a limited role in our constitutional scheme of things. Nor is a President obliged to become a non-playing captain for opposition parties. A President’s counsel must be available to a Prime Minister, though ultimately it is the Prime Minister of the day who has to answer to the Lok Sabha. It is only in times of political uncertainty that a President is called upon to use his or her discretion, and Ms. Patil can be expected to demonstrate maturity, statesmanship, and constitutional wisdom in the exercise of her discretion. After the bitter contest, the onus will be on the political class to leave Ms. Patil alone to perform her rajdharma.

See online : The Hindu

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