Ultimately, P A Sangma, Speaker of the Lok Sabha that had been dissolved mere months earlier, could take it no longer. I cannot swear to the exact words but the gist of it was: "Why is everyone mentioning caste? Can't this august House look beyond caste at the genuine qualifications of the man himself? Did we elect him just because he was born in a particular community, or because of what he achieved in his own right?"
I fear Purno Sangma was whistling at the wind! Nine years later, in January 2007, I was reading an eerie echo of those well-meaning but ultimately absurd speeches when Konakuppakatil Gopinathan Balakrishnan became the Chief Justice of India. Was there any newspaper that failed to mention that he was the first Dalit to occupy that high office? The solid edifice of achievement at Bar and Bench was secondary of course!
Delhi is a city under siege as I write. Angry Gujjars have already disrupted the rail links running to the south-west, and are now threatening to block the traffic between the capital and the booming suburbs of Gurgaon in Haryana and NOIDA in Uttar Pradesh. (God knows it takes little enough to throw Delhi's traffic into chaos!)
The Gujjars are clamouring to be listed among the Scheduled Tribes, thus sharing the fruits of reservation with their rivals among the Meenas.
It is a grim reminder of how the politics of caste can boomerang upon those who wield it. But is anybody listening in the corridors of power?
I fear not. Ignoring the clamour at the gates of Delhi, senior politicians are trying to settle the question of filling the vacancy in Rashtrapati Bhavan. And, true to form, absolutely nobody is asking whether X or Y is best qualified for the task. No, they are busy pondering over what combination of caste and creed shall be most advantageous politically.
More than half of India is under the age of fifty, so would it be desirable to have a Head of State who speaks for the majority? Is the man or woman a Constitutional expert who can deal with the, inevitable, pressures of dealing with a hung House where no single party has a majority? Is he or she someone of impeccable integrity and intelligence? Is this person the best suited to represent India upon the global stage? I haven't heard anyone ask any such question.
It is all a matter of whether putting up a Dalit, or a Brahmin, or whatever will be best. Some say that the South has had too many of its own men in Rashtrapati Bhavan recently -- R Venkataraman, K R Narayanan and A P J Abdul Kalam being three of the last four Presidents -- and it is thus time for the North to get one of its own.
And, of course, there is the inevitable voice saying that a particular religious community should be given its due. It is as if individual identity simply doesn't matter,
Smug urban readers may feel entitled to look down upon the Dalits and the Brahmins of Uttar Pradesh who forged an alliance, leave alone the Meenas and the Gujjars of Rajasthan whose enmity is tearing the state apart. But will people be any better than their leaders?
May I add that it is all particularly puerile? Take a look at the current incumbent of Rashtrapati Bhavan. A P J Abdul Kalam is the first non-politician in that office since the untimely death of Dr Zakir Hussain in 1969. He is a Muslim from Tamil Nadu, whose command of Hindi is so poor that the vice-president must read out his speeches at official functions. He is an engineer and a bureaucrat who has never campaigned for as much as a Panchayat election. But he is also, arguably, the single most respected individual in India just now.
A P J Abdul Kalam's simplicity and candour have enabled him to reach out to all and sundry. I have seen him interact with villagers from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, where it simply didn't seem to matter that his spoken Hindi is so halting. I watched in fascination as he mingled with children young enough to be his great-grandchildren, and the generation gap just vanished.
I heard how orthodox Hindus spoke of this Muslim man with utter respect, and how people from Assam felt at home with this man whose native Tamil Nadu is as distant from their state as Britain is from Poland.
The point is that A P J Abdul Kalam's character and his achievements are all that count as far the average Indian is concerned, not his community affiliations. If this were a popular poll rather than an indirect election, I am sure the current President would be re-elected handily.
Why on earth can't the powers-that-be grasp this simple point, concentrating on the ties that bind rather than on the elements that divide?
Take a look at the names proposed by Sonia Gandhi, and tell me if any of them commands the same respect as President Kalam. Does anyone really want to see our beloved Human Resources Development Minister Arjun Singh ensconced in Rashtrapati Bhavan for the next five years?
(There must be less extravagant measures to get him out of the Union Cabinet!)
Both External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee and Home Minister Shivraj Patil are good men, but can't Sonia Gandhi look beyond politicians?
India, it has been often said, has two great unifying factors, namely cricket and films. Nobody gives a hoot about Dravid's caste or Shah Rukh Khan's creed. Dare one hope that the politicians in Delhi will be as straightforward in their appreciation of true ability as cricket fans or film mavens? Or will they continue to be stuck in the old mindset?
There is a legend in Delhi that the end of a ruling class is upon us when the Gujjar tribes draw close to the city. Well, that time is indeed upon us. Will the Congress, the BJP, the Left, and all the rest hear the clamour at the gates, or shall they remain deaf, dumb, and blind to the consequences of playing the caste/creed/community card?
Please give us a President who can rise above all that, who shall inspire rather than divide!