I did not read the headlines carefully enough. What registered in my mind was that some Patil was chosen as presidential candidate by the Congress and supported by the Bahujan Samaj Party, and that their combined numbers would ensure her election. I could not place the name immediately. Then I remembered that Parvati Patil was a fellow student of Harry Potter. That made her famous enough; and now she must be close to adulthood, so it should be all right. But she had a sister, Padma, who would be equally eligible; which of the two had the Congress chosen'
I looked again, and found it was Pratibha Patil. Good, I thought. We Indians boast of being a democracy. We tell everyone that even a tiffin carrier could become president of India; it is great if we have chosen a really unknown Indian.
But why this preference for obscurity, when we have so many illustrious Indians' There is Amitabh Bachchan, the consummate actor who has the right word for every occasion. There is his daughter-in-law, Aishwarya Rai — sorry, Bachchan — whose eyes would bewitch the whole world. If you are on the other side, there is Shah Rukh Khan, who would display to the nation his patented technology of breaking hearts. And if you want a more international figure, there is Shilpa Shetty, whom the British think of as delectable Miss India.
There is Amartya Sen, the Nobel laureate who can write three speeches in one flight and make each sound different. There is Ram Guha, who can make history as interesting as fiction; his president’s XI that would beat all the world’s cricket teams. If you are on the other side, there is Arundhati Roy, the bad-tempered beauty who has put her literary talent at the service of the goddess of environment. And if you prefer an achiever to a wordsmith, there is Ela Bhatt, who brought a livelihood to poor housebound women.
There is Ratan Tata, the industrialist that the largest number of Indians admire. If you admire size, you can choose Lakshmi Mittal, who controls the world’s largest steel production capacity. Then there is Azim Premji, who turned a vegetable oil factory into India’s biggest software factory. Or there is Sunil Mittal, who defeated every obstructive or greedy telecommunications minister and created a business in ten years as big as what took the Ambanis forty years to develop. And if you like showmanship, none could be better than Vijay Mallya. President’s parties would be adorned by fountains of Scotch; and Abdul Kalam’s herb garden would be replaced by a race course.
There is Vishwanathan Anand, who two months ago became the world’s champion chess player. He would probably not accept presidency while he is at the peak of his career; nor Sania, who is still going up the ladder. Sachin Tendulkar just might, if he accepts the emerging opinion that he is past his peak. I would prefer Mahendra Singh Dhoni, provided he grows his hair long again. But both may decline, since there is more glory in playing cricket before 30 million viewers than in giving the Independence Day speech to 300 schoolchildren and 500 policemen. So maybe we should go down to Kapil Dev, the best living Indian cricketer. Then there are artists: Husain the grand painter, Susmit Sen, leader of Indian Ocean band, and Salman Rushdie, the writer with the beautiful wife.
If the president were elected by direct vote of the Indian people, I bet that any of the 21 people I have named would get more votes than Pratibha Patil. How did the Congress decision-makers reject all of them and settle on her'
The answer could be that much as the prime minister keeps exhorting Indians to achieve excellence, excellence was the last thing they were looking for. Let alone excellence, they did not even want outstanding achievement. Politicians do everything to defeat merit; reservations are standing testimony to their distaste for it.
But more likely, it is a matter of caste. The candidate had to be a politician. It was reported last year, when Sourav Ganguly was ejected from the cricket team, that Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee had offered him a seat in the upper house of parliament. But that was to be a reward, not for being a good cricketer, but for being a victimized Bengali. And it was intended to make a politician out of Sourav. But even in the depths of his misfortune, he refused to convert to politics. In any case, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) would never put up Sourav for presidency; he has achieved too much to qualify.
But lack of achievement cannot be a qualification. Almost every politician would qualify if it were, and it would be impossible to choose a candidate. Even the Congress insists on some qualifications in presidential candidates. The foremost qualification is loyalty. So many people have left the Congress over the years; the Bharatiya Janata Party would be a shadow of itself if all ex-Congressmen left it. And if you are a Congressman, you do not have to leave the party to be disloyal. Since the present Congress is Congress (Indira), any flirtation with Congress (Organization) forty years ago would have disqualified Pratibha Patil. Congress (O) was at least a separate party; even if she had flirted with Narasimha Rao her future would have been blighted. The loyalty required is not loyalty to the party, but to the dynasty of the party.
But even the number of dynasty loyalists is too large; a further criterion of choice was needed. It goes beyond past loyalty; it amounts to future loyalty. After he is made president, the candidate must not develop a conscience and disobey the party’s orders. This is difficult to ensure, for the president can no longer be disciplined for disloyalty to the party. He could be impeached. But disloyalty would not be sufficient grounds for that; something more serious like moral turpitude would be necessary. How can one guarantee that a president would do one’s bidding'
The Congress does so by choosing a candidate who has never taken a decision on his own, even when given a chance to do so. Pratibha Patil was not just a Congress loyalist; she was a Chavan loyalist. That meant that as long as he was alive, she took his advice and did his bidding, even when she was a minister. And when he died, she transferred her obedience to the next dynasty loyalist in Maharashtra. Unshakeable resolution never to act independently was the final qualification that made her the chosen candidate.
So I am afraid Pratibha Patil will be a rather colourless president; forty years’ habit is difficult to break. This is no cause for disappointment, for most previous presidents were no different. Varahagiri Venkata Giri, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy, Giani Zail Singh and Shankar Dayal Sharma had the same qualifications as Pratibha Patil. Their tenures were so forgettable that Pratibha Patil cannot do worse. She has a wonderful job; expectations are so low that she can only surprise us. She may have been waiting patiently for forty years to get this chance of surprising the whole nation. Let us wait for the surprise, but do not hold your breath.