Humble tips for choosing a new President
Five years ago, one 'almost' broke the story of India's next President. Amidst feverish speculation, a source sent an sms: "Congratulations! India is getting its first woman president and she is from your home state!" My instinctive reaction was to think of Nirmala Deshpande, the long-standing Gandhian and powerful votary of Indo-Pak peace. We even flashed her name as a likely choice. To be honest, Pratibha Patil, then Rajasthan Governor, was one of the last names on our list of possible Maharashtrian women who would occupy Rashtrapati Bhavan. As it turned out, Mrs Patil's near-anonymity and relative low profile proved to be her biggest asset.
In the last five years, Mrs Patil has lived up to her reputation of being the silent, almost nondescript President. Over this period, one cannot recall a single major speech or landmark initiative which has been taken by Rashtrapati Bhavan. She may be India's first woman President but there hasn't been any stirring of woman power or a concerted effort to use the presidential office to reach out to millions of women in the country at a time when the sex ratio has fallen to a new low. To her credit, Mrs Patil hasn't committed any major constitutional blunder either. But as the recent controversies over her post-retirement home in Pune and the Rs 205 crore spent on her foreign trips suggest, the line between constitutionality and propriety is a thin one. Mrs Patil may not have violated the Constitution but extravagance on personal and family comfort does leave a bitter aftertaste.
Which brings us to the central question as the nation looks for Mrs Patil's successor: who is an ideal President? The Constitution under Article 358 is typically prosaic: the individual must be a citizen of India, above the age of 35, eligible to contest a Lok Sabha election and must not hold an office of profit in a government body. What the Constitution doesn't prescribe is that a presidential appointment be determined by political subservience which, unfortunately, has become more the norm than exception.
In a sense, 1969 was the turning point. India's first three presidents were chosen principally for their distinguished track record in public service and little else. Dr Rajendra Prasad, Dr S Radhakrishnan and Dr Zakir Hussain were as fine a trinity of presidents one might have hoped for, the first a freedom fighter, the other two men of great learning. While VV Giri was a well regarded labour leader, the manner of his appointment after the acrimonious 1969 split in the Congress ensured that the presidential race was infused with a heavy dose of politics. While the country had some very fine textbook presidents post-69 - none better than the country's first Dalit president KR Narayanan - we also had rubber stamp Presidents like Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed whose tame acceptance of the Emergency proclamation of 1975 must be considered as the day the Rashtrapati Bhavan was defiled.
A presidential appointment thus became more about finding an individual who would do the bidding of the government of the day. Sycophantic politicians were invariably preferred to scholar statesmen, with Giani Zail Singh after being made president in 1982 by the Indira government being quoted as having famously remarked: "If my leader had said I should pick up a broom and be a sweeper, I would have done that. She chose me to be President!"
The other dominant trait in choosing Presidents has been the token symbolism attached to the post. Gianiji was made President to reach out to a Sikh community in foment. Mr Narayanan was a man of learning, but his choice was influenced by the fact that the United Front government was looking for a Dalit 'face' in Rashtrapati Bhavan. Even missile man APJ Abdul Kalam was chosen by the BJP-led government less because of his scientific achievements but more because he gave the BJP an opportunity to shed its anti-Muslim image. As for Mrs Patil, clearly the Congress-led government was trying to play the first woman President card to outsmart its opponents.
Since 1969, all of India's presidents, with the exception of Kalam, have been practising politicians. Kalam's success re-ignited the debate over whether an apolitical person can make a better President than someone whose political leanings are obvious. Kalam certainly did not bring with him the ideological baggage or individual loyalties that had burdened several of his predecessors. Moreover, his child-like enthusiasm and austere lifestyle made him enormously attractive to a generation which had grown increasingly cynical of the VIP culture that is invariably associated with influential politicians.
One Kalam certainly doesn't make a presidential summer and there is no guarantee that every 'apolitical' individual will make a better President. But clearly Kalam's popularity among the aam admi should have been a signal for the political class that the country was looking for a President of stature whose track record of public service should be such that he or she is able to rise above the ordinariness of being a mere figurehead.
Which is why this July's presidential election will provide another opportunity for the country's politicians to redefine the role and character of the presidency. Whoever is chosen for the post, the qualification should not revolve around caste or community or political biases. Choose a person who will elevate the post through a lifetime of individual achievement and public service. Not someone who owes their status solely to the benevolence of a political party and its leadership or, wrapped up in the trappings of power, sees Rashtrapati Bhavan as little more than a luxurious guest house.
More about Rajdeep SardesaiRajdeep Sardesai is the Editor-in-Chief, IBN18 Network, that includes CNN-IBN, IBN 7 and IBN Lokmat. He comes with 22 years of journalistic experience during which he has covered some of the biggest stories in India and the world. Prior to setting up the IBN network, he was the Managing Editor of both NDTV 24X7 and NDTV India and was responsible for overseeing the news policy for both the channels. He has also worked with The Times of India for six years and was the city editor of its Mumbai edition at the age of 26. During the last 22 years, he has covered major national and international stories, specialising in national politics. He has won numerous other awards for journalistic excellence, including the prestigious Padma Shri for journalism in 2008, the International Broadcasters Award for coverage of the 2002 Gujarat riots and the Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Award for 2007. He has won the Asian Television Award for best talk show for the Big Fight on two occasions and his current flagship show on CNN-IBN, India at 9, has been awarded the best news show at the Asian awards for the last two years. He has been News Anchor of the year at the Indian Television Academy for seven of the last eight years and won more than 50 awards in this period. He has also been the President of the Editors Guild of India, the only television journalist to hold the post and was chosen a Global leader for tomorrow by the world economic forum in 2000. An alumni of St Xavier's College, Mumbai, he has done his Masters and LLB from Oxford University and has also played first class cricket for the Oxford University team. He has contributed to several books and writes a fortnightly column that appears in seven newspapers.
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