Debating India
Home page > Photocopieuse > The runaway Presidential campaign

The runaway Presidential campaign

Saturday 14 July 2007, by SUBRAHMANIAM*Vidya

There is considerable unrest within the BJP over the recklessness of its Presidential campaign.

In another week, Presidential election 2007 will have come to an end, capping a campaign so bitter, so one-sided that it would be difficult to measure it against a benchmark. Admittedly, charges and counter-charges are par for the course at election time. In the United States, Presidential candidates live in fear of what the competition will dig up. The American media treat residential misdemeanours as legitimate fodder with newspapers, television and the Internet competin g to expose campaign trail scandals. The muckraking can affect one candidate more than the other. Yet the attack is prevented from tipping too much to one side by the knowledge that it is a game both parties can play. The Pratibha Patil versus Bhairon Singh Shekhawat battle looks increasingly like it could have been fought in Washington, except that the action is all on one side. Team Shekhawat has been flying at Ms. Patil without receiving any injury in return. Forget their being able to retaliate, Ms. Patil’s managers have proved inept at even fending off the blows. The upshot is the perception that the contest is between a scam-dogged Ms. Patil and a blemish-free Mr. Shekhawat.

Of course, the Indian and American elections are not comparable. The Rashtrapati Bhavan’s role is circumscribed by Article 74 of the Constitution, which vests real executive power in the Council of Ministers headed by the Prime Minister. Secondly, the votes in the Indian electoral college are pre-determined, making the verdict knowable in advance. Since this obviates the need for a slugfest, the actual electioneering is robbed of much of its colour. True, there has been the odd dramatic Presidential campaign like that of V.V. Giri in 1969, but elections to the high office have by and large been a sedate affair.

So why is election 2007 so much in the news? Ms. Patil should win barring the unlikely possibility of huge cross-voting. Yet the Shekhawat campaign is fighting as if its life hinges on it. The centrepiece of this campaign is that Ms. Patil’s election would taint the presidency and it must be averted at all costs. The call for a debate on the Presidential candidates is unexceptionable. If the sanctity of the office is paramount, equally we live at a time when the citizens’ right to information has been written into law. With the contours of a vibrant, if nascent, RTI movement visible on the ground, can there be a case for withholding information about the future occupant of the Rashtrapati Bhavan? The President is the first citizen, the supreme commander of the Armed Forces, and an individual given the discretion to decide who forms the next government when the popular mandate is ambiguous. The qualities and attributes of the President are unarguably of concern to the common citizen. Yet this very argument demands that information reaching the public be fair, accurate and free from bias. Who can object to a debate conducted within these boundaries? From scrutiny to slander

The anti-Pratibha Patil campaign has made the unfortunate transition from scrutiny to slander — a situation made worse by the failure of Ms. Patil’s team to come up with a constructive defence. Consider the contrast. Mr. Shekhawat’s campaign is run from different venues and conducted at multiple levels. Sushma Swaraj is his self-appointed spokesperson. The Bharatiya Janata Party reads out a daily charge sheet against Ms. Patil. And a team of researchers, consisting of Arun Shourie, Sudheendra Kulkarni and a battery of sympathetic journalists, keep up the supply of ammunition, never mind that the facts ferreted out are a clever mix of truth, half-truths and exaggerations. The combined effect of this dazzling blitz has been to intimidate the rival and overwhelm the public. Ms. Patil’s campaign, on the other hand, is less than defensive. It is non-existent.

The Shekhawat campaign reached a peak earlier this week with the launch by the BJP of an anti-Pratibha Patil website, The bustling media event also saw the release of a booklet containing a compilation of 50-odd articles and editorials — all of them targeting Ms. Patil. The Congress’ stock response to this and other offensives: We do not want to dignify the charges by responding to them. Party spokesperson Devendra Dwivedi valiantly argued that any rejoinder would only further diminish a Presidential office sullied by a flood of unproved allegations.

Point taken. Yet unrefuted allegations can pass for admission of guilt — and more so in the Information Age in which TV channels beam images 24x7, and the virtual explosion in the print media dictates that the front page is crowded with scoops. And when scoops are readily offered, who would not grab them? That the so-called scoops against Ms. Patil have massively outnumbered anything brought up against her rival testify to this. Over the past month, Ms. Patil has been maligned on a scale previously unimaginable in an Indian Presidential election. The allegations have ranged from semi-truth to complete fiction. One of the charges is that her relatives have been visiting the Rashtrapati Bhavan, demanding the placement of various fixtures prior to her formal swearing-in. S.M. Khan, Press Secretary to President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, denies this: “There is no truth whatever in this. None of her relatives has come here.”

Undoubtedly, there were better candidates available to the ruling alliance. However, a proper scrutiny would establish Ms. Patil to be no worse than Mr. Shekhawat. The United Progressive Alliance-Left-Bahujan Samaj Party’s nominee has been cast in the role of a “dark villain” in a race that has pointedly and deliberately ignored the weaknesses of her rival. It is not that there is no defence available to the ruling alliance’s candidate. Just days ago, the Supreme Court dismissed a public interest litigation petition seeking the cancellation of Ms. Patil’s candidature as she was an “undischarged solvent.” The charges were identical to those cited by the BJP and published in the media. Ruling that the allegations were not backed by evidence, and indeed there was no adjudication holding Ms. Patil an “undischarged solvent,” the court asked if it was a public interest litigation or a private interest litigation. No prizes for guessing the imaginative uses to which the BJP’s spin machine would have put this court-handed reprieve had the roles of the BJP and the Congress been reversed. Attempt to restore balance

The Left parties and a minuscule section of the media have attempted to restore the balance in this one-sided smear campaign. The Left questioned the credentials of a Presidential candidate (Mr. Shekhawat), who served the police during a major part of British rule (1942-1948) — and at a time when better men were engaged in the freedom struggle. The same point was brought up by Karan Thapar in his interview with BJP chief Rajnath Singh in his programme Devil’s Advocate t elecast on CNN-IBN and CNBC. Mr. Thapar also raised other charges, many of them serious, against Mr. Shekhawat, relying on an investigation by the Outlook magazine.

The BJP president was unable to counter the charges, his sole defence being that his own interactions with the Vice-President had shown him to be of exemplary character. Mr. Thapar also admitted that he was misled by Mr. Shourie (whom he had previously interviewed) into fully believing the accusations against Ms. Patil. “All your facts are wrong,” he told a visibly discomfited Rajnath Singh.

Granted there is a danger in mindlessly pursuing the blame game. Yet, there were powerful political points available to Ms. Patil’s aides. The oft-quoted Bommai judgment is considered a testament against the misuse of Article 356. However, the same judgment upheld the December 1992 dismissal of the Shekhawat regime following the demolition of the Babri Masjid. The court validated the Presidential proclamation on the ground that “it was based on the fact of violation of the secular features of the Constitution.” (On December 15, 1992, the Centre dismissed the Rajasthan Government along with the Governments of Madhya Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh citing their contributory role played in inciting demolition-related communal violence). For any Presidential aspirant there cannot be a worse indictment. That the Shekhawat team’s PR overdrive masks the real state of the opposition only adds to the irony. The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance is today a bitterly divided house. The Shiv Sena has broken with it on its Presidential choice, the Trinamool Congress has been unresponsive to Ms. Swaraj’s entreaties to support Mr. Shekhawat and many other constituents are reluctant riders of the Shekhawat campaign.

The BJP’s attempt to rope in the Third Front has backfired with its members spelling out their disinterest in any dalliance with the BJP. Within the BJP too, there is unrest over hyping a lost campaign and warring with a future President. There is reluctant recognition that once the dust settles, the Rashtrapati Bhavan will be seen to have been irreparably damaged — by the BJP’s noise and the Congress’ silence.

See online : The Hindu

SPIP | template | | Site Map | Follow-up of the site's activity RSS 2.0