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Medium Term: This Presidential election is about competence, not symbolism

What is the significance of the Congress Party’s decision to nominate Pranab Mukherjee as its

Presidential candidate?      Several things, actually. As I suggested in this column last week, the importance of India’s

Presidency lies less in the behaviour of the President once he is safely ensconced in Rashtrapati Bhavan and more in the trial of strength that often precedes the President’s election. I have no doubt Pranab Mukherjee will be an excellent President – and it does look as though his elevation is now a done deal – but it is the race for Rashtrapati Bhavan that has thrown up some significant conclusions.


   First, there is the politician factor. Over the last couple of decades, a broad consensus has emerged to the effect that an active politician should not be sent to Rashtrapati Bhavan. Pratibha Patil was out of active politics when she was made President. APJ Abdul Kalam was never a politician. K.R. Narayanan was vice-president when he became a candidate for the Presidency. Shankar Dayal Sharma had been out of active politics for years when he got the job. R. Venkatraman was vice-president before he became President.


   In fact, this is the first time in three decades that an active politician is going off to Rashtrapati Bhavan. The last time this happened was in 1980 when Giani Zail Singh went from being Indira Gandhi’s home minister to becoming the President of India.


   That the consensus over non-political candidates has broken down is more significant than people realise. What it suggests is that politicians believe that it is entirely legitimate for one of their own to be elevated. They no longer bother to look for bland, universally-acceptable candidates. Even the NDA-supported candidate, Purno Sangma, is an active politician. And when Mamata Banerjee made her suggestions in an effort to derail Pranab’s candidacy, she named the ultimate in active politicians: the Prime Minister of India.


   Second, the decision to pick active politicians also marks the revocation of another trend. All too often, the Presidency has been used to make statements about the inclusive nature of Indian democracy. Pratibha Patil’s primary qualification was that she was a woman. When Mulayam Singh Yadav suggested to the BJP that it should back Abdul Kalam, his argument was that the Sangh Parivar would look good if it selected a Muslim candidate. K.R. Narayanan was an outstanding President and a man of many talents but would he really have got to Rashtrapati Bhavan if he was not a Dalit?


   Throughout history, politicians have used identity, gender, religion, caste and ethnicity as factors in selecting Presidential candidates. Even Indira Gandhi justified the selection of Giani Zail Singh on the grounds that the Sikhs would feel happy to have one of their own in Rashtrapati Bhavan. (She was wrong. The Punjab problem got much worse after Zail Singh became President, at least partly because of Singh’s meddling in the affairs of his home state.) Hamid Ansari is an erudite man but many of those who suggested that he be elevated to Rashtrapati Bhavan played the Muslim card. And when the Left objected to Karan Singh’s candidacy, it did so on the grounds of identity. Though Karan Singh would have been brilliant in the job, and the Left could find nothing wrong with his qualifications, it objected to him because he was born a Maharaja.


   By choosing Pranab Mukherjee, a Brahmin with no great political base in his home state and whose candidacy has been opposed by the ruling party in Bengal, the UPA is sending out a message: this election is not about symbolism. It is about competence.


   Ah, competence! That’s the third most significant conclusion to emerge from Pranab’s candidacy. Pratibha Patil has never been regarded as a particularly brilliant person. When Abdul Kalam was elected President, nobody had any idea how competent he was to perform the job.


"His intellect is impressive and his memory is fearsome. As for his competence, the fact that he heads so many groups of ministers should tell you how he has functioned at the centre of the government."

   By and large, we’ve taken the line that competence does not matter. Even a joker like Zail Singh got sent to Rashtrapati Bhavan because nobody thought that the President needed to be particularly bright or competent.


   And perhaps, competence does not matter. After all, the President’s role is largely ceremonial. But when you think back to the criteria that our founding fathers used while selecting presidential candidates, you realise that in the early days, brilliance and eminence were important criteria. Dr S. Radhakrishnan was a towering intellect. His works on Hindu philosophy are classics. (He was also competent, playing an important behind-the-scenes during the 1965 war with Pakistan.) Dr Zakir Hussain was an outstanding academic, universally respected for his intelligence and integrity. In the years that followed, we have had only one really first-rate intellect at Rashtrapati Bhavan. Otherwise, neither brilliance nor competence has been used as a criterion.


   The selection of Pranab Mukherjee marks a break with that precedent. I’ve lost count of the number of BJP politicians who, despite being totally opposed to Pranab’s politics, have told me that they regard him as the most brilliant man in Parliament. His intellect is impressive and his memory is fearsome. As for his competence, the fact that he heads so many groups of ministers should tell you how he has functioned at the centre of the government.


   That leaves a fourth and final conclusion. Politicians get into this business to play politics. But at some level, they also recognise merit when they see it. It is significant that the only real opposition to Pranab’s candidacy has come from Mamata Banerjee, who has a personal axe to grind. Otherwise, most politicians have conceded that he is a good choice. The BJP’s decision to oppose his candidacy is symbolic rather than deeply felt which is why the NDA has failed to put up a candidate of its own and is instead making a show of support to the no-hope candidacy of P. Sangma, who was actually a member of the UPA till a few days ago.


   History will judge how good a President Pranab Mukherjee will be. But I’m glad that he is the candidate most likely to win not just because I think highly of him personally but because his selection marks a break with the useless conventions of recent years: stay away from politicians, look for minorities, don’t worry about competence, try and find non-entities, etc.


   A great democracy deserves as President we can be proud of.




  • R Gorayan 30 Jun 2012

    Vir, I'm disappointed. Your article concludes, rightly, that nominating Pranab (competent, active politician etc) is a "goodly right" thing to do, and it's "about time". But the problem is that the *job* of the Prez (in India) is little more than cutting ribbons and dedicating memorials. I would argue that Pranab should spend his time grooming a top-notch FM to take his place, and then maybe go teach Economics at Jadavpur Univ. And consider Ratan Tata, freshly retired, for Prez.

  • Saurabh Fadia 29 Jun 2012

    Vir you seem to forget that Pranab was a highly incompetent FM who inherited a hurtling economy despite 2008 Lehmann fallout & ensured he put brakes on it. The fact that India has been downgraded & investment sentiments are back to the 80s shows his competence

  • somnath karunakaran 24 Jun 2012

    Vir, You have once again laid it out beautifully, while I was for Pranab Mukherjee a sneaking feeling of his having muddled the waters as FM was there, but not anymore, a brilliant piece... many thanks....

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