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The real tragedy of the Presidential elections

July 04, 2007 17:56 IST
Public discourse in recent decades has rapidly degenerated into affixing some horrific label or other -- pro-this, anti-that -- on anyone who takes, supports, defends or disputes a position.

With the result, it is only with great trepidation that one takes a public stand on any matter of contention. I do so now in regard to l'affaire Pratibha Patil, the Presidential candidate.

The air is thick with accusations and disputations, most of it cluttered with irrelevant or tangential arguments.

The piece by Harish Khare, for whose grasp of issues and clarity of expression I have great respect, in The Hindu of July 4 is one such instance of confusion worse confounded.

The issue is most emphatically not about whether Mrs Patil has been chosen with the intention of planting a pliant party loyalist within the precincts of Rashtrapati Bhavan.

Even if somebody had such a design, it can go awry on two counts.

First, there is an even chance of a person coming to occupy an exalted position outgrowing his/her earlier traits and living up to the trust and faith reposed in him/her.

There are many instances of party loyalists appointed as justices of the US supreme court by the President of the day turning out to be fiercely independent in dealing with cases coming for adjudication.

In India, Giani Zail Singh professed his willingness to sweep the corridors of the Presidential mansion if his mentor, Indira Gandhi, so directed; the same Zail Singh, when push came to shove, withheld his consent for the Postal Bill, and proved a thorn in the flesh of her son and successor.

Second, in the Indian context, the President functions within a strictly circumscribed Constitutional framework. The only three explicitly stated powers given to him in the Constitution as being exercisable at his discretion are appointment of the prime minister, sending back for the reconsideration of the Cabinet matters which are forwarded to him either for his formal approval or for information, and requiring the prime minister to furnish information relating to the administration of the affairs of the Union and proposals for legislation.

There are also grey areas which may call for the President having the final say.

For instance, Constitutional pundits would have it that he is not bound by any advice tendered by the prime minister who has patently lost his majority in the Lok Sabha or against whom the House has passed a no confidence motion.

To my best recollection, the apex court has laid down that the President can act on his own in a context in which actionable criminal charges against the prime minister or other ministers become subject matter for decision.

The power of appointment of the prime minister can be crucial in the case of a hung Lok Sabha, especially when no party enjoys the numerical strength to assert the claim of the person it puts up.

By the very fact of returning for reconsideration a matter (like a proclamation of President's Rule or Emergency) decided by the Cabinet or by a minister, a President can be perceived to have caused grave embarrassment to the government and brought down the party or parties concerned in public esteem.

A compatible, if not pliant, President can certainly help save the face of the powers-that-be.

Making history

I am prepared to believe that the United Progressive Alliance-Left combine was not at all influenced by these considerations when it plumped for Pratibha Patil and that the choice was made with the best of intentions.

I am sure that its constituents were perceptive enough to know that in any event, the self-corrective mechanisms of democracy -- Parliament, Opposition, courts of law, media, civil society -- are active enough in India to be able to control any damage that may ensue from any wrong or motivated exercise of powers by the President.

That does not take away the fact that the choice of the candidate was made as a last-minute desperate effort to announce some reasonably acceptable name, and when it happened to be that of a woman who had had a modicum of experience of public affairs and political office, the participants in the exercise were perhaps carried away to some extent at the thought of making history in the bargain.

I have no doubt at all that if they had taken into account, by exercising due diligence, all that is now public knowledge, they would have thought twice about going ahead with the choice.

Both the UPA and the Left, I would say especially the Left, have enough good sense and moral sensibility to be aware that Caesar's wife should be above suspicion.

Quintessence of nation's prestige

Let us face it: Simply because the Bharatiya Janata Party, the National Democratic Alliance or any of the detractors of the UPA-Left are seen to be disseminating them, the accusations should not be dismissed as just political mudslinging or trivial.

They were already part of the reports of the Reserve Bank of India and complaints levelled by Congresspersons before the leaders of their own party.

They pertain to character defects and integrity deficit and were repeatedly made over a long period when nobody ever dreamt of Pratibha Patil being made the Presidential candidate.

The fact that the election is indirect does not mean that 'We, the people,' through our elected servants, members of Parliament and members of legislative assemblies, can be denied the right to be satisfied about the candidate's past being unimpeachable.

Regardless of what powers the President has or does not have, or how s/he exercises them, s/he represents the quintessence of propriety, probity and prestige of the nation. S/he is the role model to whom everyone, old and young alike, looks up for inspiration to be true to values and ideals.

S/he is also the Supreme Commander of the armed forces which are particular about quickly visiting any misconduct with condign punishment by means of a court martial. The rest of the world takes the measure of the quality and character of a country by looking at the credentials of its President.

They have, therefore, to be spotless, beyond reproach and above suspicion.

It is for this reason that even those who have gone nowhere near politics -- like myself -- are deeply perturbed at the course the Presidential election has taken.

For me, in particular, whose entire upbringing in his formative years had been under the shadows of people like Jawaharlal Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Bidhan Chandra Roy, C Subramanian and Jyoti Basu, the deliberate attempt to sidetrack the discourse along party lines is akin to a tragedy.

B S Raghavan is a former director (political) at the ministry of home affairs.

B S Raghavan