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CALM ABOVE THE STORM

- As the presidential poll nears, everyone has an axe to grind

A story doing the rounds last week had Mamata Banerjee as Pranab Mukherjee’s ardent secret champion. Determined that a Bengali should at last hold one of the country’s two top jobs, she suggested Manmohan Singh for the presidency in the certain knowledge that it would leave the field open for Mukherjee to become prime minister. When that gambit failed, she appeared to resolutely oppose Mukherjee’s presidential candidature, again in the certain knowledge that nothing else would force Sonia Gandhi to swallow her reservations and belatedly nominate him.

So much for fanciful fiction. The serious aspect is that the decoy duck in that story had the good sense in real life finally to withdraw. But the exhibition A.P.J. Abdul Kalam made of himself justifies a constitutional amendment forbidding former presidents trying to recapture the past. No one expects such undignified hankering from Mukherjee who is diminished by being called Bengal’s candidate. He is a “son of the world” as Banerjee said on television, though it was not taken then as a compliment. Not that kinship ties don’t matter. Many a truth is spoken in jest and there may have been something in that other tale about Prafulla Sen turning up at Promode Dasgupta’s obsequies with the explanation that he tried not to miss any hatches, matches and despatches among fellow Baidyas. Judging by the division in the Marxist politburo over supporting Mukherjee, Dasgupta would probably have done the same for Sen. Jayaprakash Narayan’s detractors accused him of being casteist about the landowners whose districts he plunged into the chaos of total revolution.

Purno A. Sangma’s claim to be a tribal candidate is an explicit assertion of identity politics that disdains euphemisms like “minority section” or “forward castes”. But which tribes will rally behind him? Presumably, his own Garo hills will. So, perhaps, will neighbouring Nagas and Mizos. But will the Santhals of Odisha or Jharkand’s Oraons? Are the Todas of Ootacamund interested in his candidature? Have the Jarawa and Onge in the Andamans or the Shompens in the Nicobar Islands even heard of the office he is contesting? Sangma might get some additional support from Roman Catholics in the northeastern hills but, by the same token, not from Baptists and Presbyterians. India’s tribes are as much a patchwork quilt as India itself.

Instinctive loyalty will be muted to some extent since legislators and not ordinary citizens vote for the president. But even this supposedly elite group understands traditional networks and hierarchies better than borrowed political theories and institutions. Western abstractions like democracy become meaningful only when presented in indigenous terms. Saudi Arabia hardly qualifies for government of, for and by the people, which our theoreticians revere as the hallmark of democracy, but when an American expressed surprise at a fellaheen addressing Ibn Saud, the kingdom’s founder, as “brother”, the king replied, “Can a man insult me by calling me his mother’s son?” That affirmation of the essential brotherhood of man can underpin democracy more effectively than Westminster rituals that make for token representative government.

It’s mainly because Western terms and concepts are so superficially applied that a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh spokesman can get away with a monstrosity like “Hindutva is the true synonym for secularism”. The word secularism has no resonance for the unenlightened masses. Bigots at a higher level who exploit popular faith and ignorance twist and turn it in a Humpty Dumpty act so that secularism means exactly what they want it to mean. The term “pseudo-secularism” Lal Krishna Advani coined, and which his acolytes mindlessly parrot, is a prime example of this semantic jugglery. Anyone who shudders at the vision of Narendra Modi trying to claw his way up the Bharatiya Janata Party ladder is denounced as a pseudo-secularist. No one, least of all Advani and his imitators, has ever bothered to define what the term means. This is the cunning of political semantics. Someone who is pseudo is an imposter, a fraud, whose motives are dishonest and who must, therefore, be silenced. If anyone queries the secular part of the term, he is presented with the RSS’s morally deceitful and linguistically absurd claim that only champions of Hindutva are true secularists. All others are pseudo-secularists.

In making an issue of secularism in the current debate, Nitish Kumar may well be trying to advance his own fortunes. Nevertheless, what he says is unexceptionable. Secularism, social justice and democracy are three props of what is aptly called raj dharma. They are essential qualities for harmoniously governing a country of more than a crore of people of diverse faiths, cultures, languages and ethnicities, to say nothing of extreme disparities of social, educational and financial standing. Those among the chattering classes who may be dazzled by propaganda about the Modi miracle in Gujarat and swallow hook, line and sinker the meaningless cliché that he has “outgrown the state” should understand that raj dharma is not a devious scheme to suppress Hindus or pamper Muslims. It’s the only practical formula to provide fair governance to all.

Economic growth is meaningless without social stability. There can be no peace if, for instance, a tribal prime minister mounts a pogrom against non-tribals. Or, if policemen under a Muslim prime minister remain impervious to Muslim mobs butchering Hindus. India’s demographic variety allows many such combinations and permutations. All would be equally dreadful for the country if the man at the top is a narrow-minded sectarian with loyalty only to one group. Secular in the Indian context need not be irreligious. It’s enough to be strictly impartial.

But why does one think of these permanencies of governance when a largely ceremonial incumbent with a tenure of only five years is being elected? The long-term answer is that with Mukherjee in Rashtrapati Bhavan, the presidency itself may be in for some reinvention. The immediate provocation is the nature of the contest in which the candidate is one of the least important factors. Everyone has his eye on something else. For many it’s the Gujarat state elections, the 2014 national elections, hopes of bringing it forward to benefit some fringe parties, or the possibility of fostering a third front. Some seek advantages for a state, some for a community. Others are bent on settling old scores, splitting a party, or doing in a rival, actual or potential. The deafening roar of axes being ground permits no sane discussion of the candidate’s merits and demerits.

India is poised on the brink of interesting times. No one need any longer fear scandals over lavish bungalows on encroached military land that a percipient member of the constituent assembly, K.T. Shah, anticipated when he proposed “a pension, or retirement allowance” so that the president would “be free from temptation, from want, and from penury”. But we can expect a new and invigorating vitality. It’s impossible to think of Rashtrapati Bhavan not being a centre of political activity as long as a president worth the name occupies it. King George VI’s offer (mentioned in my last column) to become “president of the Indian republic” might have provided a respite from politics. But even if that impossible suggestion had been accepted, imagination boggles at what the local, presumably Indian, representatives of a distant head of state might have got up to.

For all that he is a dyed-in-the-wool Congressman in spite of having flirted with two other parties, Mukherjee can be expected to live up to the demand by another constituent assembly member, Tajamul Husain, that “the president must not be a mere tool in the hands of the majority party”. It will suffice if between the two extremes of Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed’s subservience and Zail Singh’s recalcitrance, the next incumbent insists on the British constitutional monarch’s right to be consulted, to encourage and to warn.