June 21, 2002


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Rajeev Srinivasan

All the President's Menů

The shenanigans behind the Presidential election in India this year have provided more entertainment than usual. At the end of all this, the NDA seems to have stolen a march over the Congress; the Marxists are, as usual, doing things that make sense only in their warped world view. But alas, several rather dignified people have been humiliated.

The thing that, finally, was most risible about the whole affair was the Comrades' assertion that A P J Abdul Kalam did not deserve to be the President of India because he was not politically savvy enough. Someone in the media complained that Kalam had been on good terms with every governments he dealt with, regardless of party affiliation. Precisely. That is what a true nationalist would do: always support the national government, especially in matters of foreign policy, never mind their political slant.

Most people in India, Comrades please note, consider his apoliticalness Kalam's greatest qualification for the position. For, the masses are just sick and tired of the career politician, who has amply exhibited his venality. And the masses are equally sick and tired of anti national 'secular' 'progressive' 'intellectuals' of JNU stock. These boors can never support the national government; they are always looking for what makes the most sense for their homeland, China.

I have a rather unusual perspective on the whole affair, as my family has [admittedly tenuous] links with a couple of the main players in this drama.

When President K R Narayanan was first proposed as a candidate a few years ago, I was quite happy about it, for he was a Malayali of disadvantaged background, and clearly an accomplished man. Furthermore, one branch of my extended family, from central Kerala, helped him when he was a young and bright student: so I felt good about someone even remotely connected with the family becoming the President.

On the other hand, Colonel Lakshmi Sehgal is distantly related to me by marriage; so is, obviously, her sister Mrinalini Sarabhai. I have always been quite proud of this association brought about by my great uncle and great aunt falling in love against caste taboos and general social disapproval, he being from Travancore and she from Malabar.

I have always had a glorified picture of Colonel Lakshmi: the doctor who led a women's battalion of the Indian National Army. I have long admired that 'forgotten army,' and wondered what might have been if only Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose had not been forced out of the Congress to make way for Jawaharlal Nehru! The saddest two words in the English language: "if only!"

Yes, Colonel Lakshmi was on the side of the good guys. Once upon a time.

What a fall for someone who fought side by side with the greatest nationalist of our time! To now be shamed by associating with the Marxists, who are nationalists of course: Chinese nationalists, that is! They who refuse to recognise the Chinese invasion of India. They who conspired with the British thugs and betrayed so many freedom fighters. They who possibly have on their hands the blood of Kartar Singh Sarabha and Vishnu Ganesh Pingale, of UC Berkeley, 19 years of age, betrayed and hanged in the Lahore Conspiracy case of 1915.

Colonel Lakshmi's quixotic candidacy is possibly the influence of Subhashini Ali, her daughter and Marxist Leninist firebrand. But how I wish the feisty old lady, at 88, had not allowed herself to be humiliated in this manner!

No, I don't have any family connections with A P J Abdul Kalam or P C Alexander; although I would like to note the interesting fact that all four of the above candidates are from the South, and three from Kerala. This must be a tangible effect of the federalism everyone has been talking about: the self assertion of the periphery as opposed to the heartland, the Gangetic Plain.

I am rather glad that neither Narayanan nor Alexander will be the new President [although both were unnecessarily humiliated] because despite all their other qualifications, I get the feeling that they would still, as First Citizen, feel beholden to the Nehru dynasty. Perhaps it was the done thing in the generation they grew up in. Possibly a few roadblocks in their career paths were cleared by the Nehru dynasty.

A number of commentators have pointed out the apparent partiality that President Narayanan exhibited towards Sonia Gandhi and against the BJP in the last few years, giving her more room than a strictly neutral third party would have given her. Furthermore, I feel that his precedent busting move of giving an exclusive interview to the Marxist Frontline and its editor N Ram sent the wrong signal. An activist President, fine, but not a partisan President: it does not sit well with the dignity of the office.

Contrary to what Colonel Lakshmi said in an interview, I do believe choosing A P J Abdul Kalam sends precisely the right message to anyone who cares to observe. The message that today's India is not to be trifled with, that it has strong willed men and women who are not afraid to stand up to world pressure and look after its own interests. Kalam is a potent symbol of India's determination to be a contender: a man who has never wavered in his belief in a strong and powerful India. An India that is no longer the hectoring Third World rabble rouser of the Non Aligned Movement salad days, a preaching busybody.

This is a message that of course China doesn't want to hear, whence the anguish exhibited by Comrades Sitaram Yechuri and Harkishen Singh Surjeet at the Kalam nomination. The CPI-M have a one point agenda: oppose anything that the BJP suggests, for China really dislikes the show of spine India has shown under BJP/NDA rule: Pokhran II, and George Fernandes' candid assessment of them as India's threat number one. Otherwise, how on earth could the CPI-M, self proclaimed champions of Muslims, field a candidate against a Muslim for the highest office in India? I do hope this betrayal is being observed by India's Muslims who will reward the CPI-M suitably at future polls.

The fact that A P J Abdul Kalam is a Muslim is immensely relevant. The only place on earth where I remember a non majority person become even titular head of state recently is Singapore which had Devan Nair, of Indian descent, as President. The fact that nobody bats an eyelash at the elevation of Kalam to the post is proof of the astonishing tolerance of the average Hindu Indian.

And here is a Muslim who is the very antithesis of the murderous Arab Wah'abist fanatic terrorist of the popular imagination. The fact of the matter is that India has very many nationalist Muslims just like Kalam. I personally know some of them. Unfortunately, their voices get drowned out in the chorus of hate filled rhetoric emanating from Muslim fundamentalists and the 'secular' 'progressives' who get all the newsprint and the airtime. The nationalists could easily take the leadership in providing an opposing pole, a kinder, gentler Islam, as a counterbalance to the poisonous version coming out of Pakistan aided and funded by Saudi Arabia. Perhaps Kalam will prove a catalyst.

This possibility concerns some Muslims, although I fail to understand why. I was shocked to read an article titled, What's Muslim about Kalam? in The Asian Age, by Rafiq Zakaria, supposedly a moderate. Zakaria suggests that Kalam is not a Muslim. It is saddening that even someone like Zakaria, who has prospered through the secular Indian system, still wants others to prove their "Muslimness" though certain tests. This is not moderation, but fundamentalism. I am reminded of the Pakistani edicts that forced Nobel Laureate physicist Abdus Salam, an Ahmediya, to be an outcast, for he was "not Muslim enough." And they say Muslims do not observe caste distinctions!

Kalam did not need to be a Muslim to be elevated to this post. He is possibly the best known non politician in India. That is an unfair comparison, because politicians get free media coverage. But the Missile Man, who is fond of quoting John Kennedy's challenge: "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country," has caught the public's imagination. I think that if we had a direct election scheme in India, where the public more or less directly elected a President, Kalam might still win against any and all comers. He has become an icon of our times.

And consider the irony: Pakistan names its missiles after Afghan barbarians [although as someone said, they should really name them after North Korean and Chinese dictators, as their missiles are screwdriver jobs]. India now has, as I have suggested before, the opportunity to name its missiles the APJ Abdul Kalam I, II, III etc. Isn't it the most stinging refutation of Pakistan's self image as the haven of the subcontinent's Muslims that the putative Muslim President of India is the father of India's missiles? Consider the propaganda value of this: a Muslim who is a nationalist Indian!

In email discussions with my friend Mrinalini Y, I got carried away on this propaganda front. As reader Arvind suggested, there is such wonderful value to shouting from the rooftops: "Look! Look! We have a Muslim President who is also our top missile engineer!"

What could top this? How about Lt General JFR Jacob, Governor of Punjab? What could be a better statement to thumb our collective noses at Pakistan than to nominate Governor Jacob, a Jew, to the post of vice-president? And that too, a general who was a senior commanding officer in the Bangladesh campaign of 1971: if I am not mistaken, he was in charge of the Eastern Command for the Indian Army. Imagine that: it would make the Arabs and Pakistanis absolutely livid if we made him vice president. And that would be worth its weight in gold. Wouldn't it be wonderful to have General Musharraf, on his next visit to Delhi, be forced to pay his respects, as protocol demands, to a Jewish Indian who had trounced his fearsome Muslim Pakistani warriors? The mind boggles.

Wait, we could go further down this track. What about a Christian for prime minister? I nominate George Fernandes. Oh, maybe you were thinking Sonia Gandhi? Never, she's the last person, possibly the very last person, who should become prime minister, regardless of religion.

And that reminds me of the recent hatchet job by Time on Prime Minister Vajpayee. The allegations that he is a doddering old man and an alcoholic are hilarious. I used to read Time magazine with dedication when I was a student; it was only later that I realised that it was not exactly the last word in journalism. For, if Vajpayee is an incapable fool, as Time implied, what should they have said of Ronald Reagan, who was out to lunch much of the time, and had about as much idea of what was going on as Chance the gardener, a half wit, in the Peter Sellers movie Being There?

Or how about Richard Nixon, war criminal, alcoholic, crook? And Bill Clinton, the ithyphallic one, with his escapades with any number of women? And John Kennedy, the idol himself, with his flagrant adultery and orgies in the swimming pools of the White House? Time used to have a particularly egregious fellow with an Indian name writing nonsense about India; I suspect they have just passed on this task to someone else, a gun for hire. By all means send angry letters to the editor, but there's no reason to get really upset. Nobody really takes these narcissistic Mcmagazines all that seriously. If they collect good data, use it, that's about all. Their opinions are not weighty.


Several people have sent me articles, requesting my help in getting them published by I must regretfully decline, as I do not have the time to read through all of them and make suggestions. For those wishing to get published, I'd suggest you write to the Rediff Diary editor (sorry, I don't know the email id), or to with several examples of your work. Alternatively, I'd suggest you try which accepts work by Indian writers, and publishes columns by several people whose I work I enjoy.

Some people have been writing to me expecting a reply from me. This is physically impossible, as I get hundreds of letters for each column, and on occasion have received over a thousand. I simply couldn't carry on conversations on this large scale, as I do have a full time job. Once again, I plead lack of time, but I do read all your mail, and I do thank you for your comments, kudos and criticism.

Red in the face: Varsha Bhosle
"A titular head?": Arvind Lavakare
Towards Rashtrapati Bhavan: T V R Shenoy
Of symbolic and real fights: Amberish K Diwanji

Presidential Election 2002

Rajeev Srinivasan

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