The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- How to make the presidential election more than a diversion

There is something patently disingenuous about that section of the media which proclaims piously that this is the “dirtiest” presidential election in India’s history, and then proceeds to highlight its own “exclusive” story centred on the alleged misdemeanours of a candidate. However, just as society has got accustomed to media double-speak — particularly if the “exclusive” is the handiwork of a competitor — it has equally adjusted to politicians who declaim the virtues of probity in public life and protest against the “mudslinging” by rivals.

There are many ways in which next month’s election for the next president of India has been transformed from a typical silly season diversion into something more substantial. India has, for example, gauged that the competitive bargaining of fractious coalition partners doesn’t inevitably lead to a wholesome consensus. It has equally digested the fact that public opinion, as expressed through internet and SMS polls — the modern-day equivalent of yesterday’s petitions and Letters to the Editor — doesn’t necessarily prompt the political class to sit up and take note. Finally, it has revealed that the fear of what the neighbours may think is still a deterrent to an honest liaison.

However, all these themes pale into insignificance in the face of the “sleaze” factor. For long, upright Indians have maintained the fiction that elections should be devoid of personal attacks. I understand that one of the guidelines issued by the Election Commission is to this effect. It is an elusive ideal well-meaning Indians have steadfastly worshipped even after Western democracies have discarded it peremptorily. Digging up long-forgotten embarrassments in the lives of candidates has, for example, become the stuff of American primaries. Occasionally, they even intrude into the main contest. President Bill Clinton, for example, had his fair share of “revelations” centred on his promiscuous past. Lesser beings would have been felled by these embarrassing disclosures — Senator Edward Kennedy had his presidential hopes dashed permanently by the tragic drowning of a travelling companion at Chappaquiddick — but Clinton overcome them by dint of his charm and charisma.

The question arises: was Clinton a lesser president because of the numerous skeletons in his cupboard' Opinions are divided. There are those who refer to his much-publicised dalliance with Monica Lewinsky and the pardon he conferred on the businessman, Marc Rich, on the final day of his presidency to argue that American voters were wrong to succumb to his charms. After all, he was the only president in living memory to face impeachment. Yet, the fact is that Clinton remains America’s most popular former president — and this popularity is global. He is perceived as a venerable statesman, not a mere rake.

Regardless of Clinton’s performance as president, one thing is undeniable: the American public had every right to digest every disagreeable detail of the man they sent to the White House. Upholders of the American system of due diligence insist that a thorough background check is the only guarantee against any president being either blackmailed or becoming vulnerable to extraneous pressure.

Indian democracy is certainly lax by American standards. Disreputable characters have routinely passed electoral tests with flying colours partly because the electorate is ignorant about the background of the person it is electing and partly because there are negotiable standards of morality. Even the laws debarring convicted criminals from contesting elections have had little impact because inefficient and wilfully flawed investigations have made convictions difficult. Despite these difficulties, moral opprobrium has made it difficult for “tainted ministers” to continue in office.

The controversies surrounding Pratibha Patil, the UPA-Left candidate in the presidential election, has posed new challenges for Indian democracy. The initial reaction of many to Rajini Patil of Jalgaon accusing Patil of conspiring to protect her husband’s killers was one of outrage. It was perceived as an unnecessary low blow against someone who was set to become the first woman president of India. Many observers drew their own conclusions from the fact that the charges emanated from the Bharatiya Janata Party. That the woman who accused Patil had been brought to Delhi by a former functionary in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s PMO prompted the conclusion that the Opposition was desperate in the face of certain defeat.

The story, however, did not end with the alleged murder cover-up. Over the past few days, there has been a veritable torrent of media reports casting aspersions on Patil’s integrity. On the strength of a Reserve Bank of India report, Patil has been accused of diverting nearly Rs 2.24 crore from the Pratibha Mahila Sahakari Bank, ostensibly established for the empowerment of women, as loans (which subsequently became non-performing assets) to relatives. In addition, Patil has been accused of facilitating an interest waiver of Rs 32.93 lakh for her relatives. The accusations appear to be supported by strong documentary evidence.

To add to her woes, Patil has also been accused of securing land at a throwaway price in Pune under false pretences and failing to ensure the proper utilization of collections made during the Kargil war — a serious charge against a person who may well end up as commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

The allegations have thrown the Congress into some confusion. The party has so far been unable to refute the grave allegations and has fallen back on generalized counter-charges of BJP-RSS disinformation. So far Patil has not personally answered her detractors. Indeed, there is an impression in political circles that the Congress establishment has imposed a gag order on her. Each time she has opened her mouth of late — her comments on purdah and her claims of communion with the spirits being examples — they have caused acute embarrassment to her supporters. The report of her intervention in 1975 calling for compulsory sterilization of those suffering from hereditary diseases has left many people wondering whether she is for real.

The seriousness of the allegations against Patil — it does not really matter that she has not been formally convicted of any offence — has put an end to the initial indignation over muck-raking. Patil has not been a household name in national politics. Her background, career-graph and competence to be president have not been adequately assessed by either the political class or civil society. Under the circumstances, the media and political parties have a role in bringing both the noble and the unwholesome facets of her life into the public realm.

The conclusions haven’t been encouraging. Compared to A.P.J. Abdul Kalam’s unimpeachable integrity, Patil does come across as a slightly dodgy individual. Of course, this aspect of her life may have been completely unknown to those who chose her to be the ruling coalition’s candidate. If this is indeed the case, the Congress will not look diminished if it re-examines its decision before June 30 — keeping in mind the fact that it is choosing a head of state. A last-minute change, if warranted, may well lead to momentary awkwardness, but this is nothing compared to the long-term institutional damage if Patil is found to be not quite what she appears.

In America, George McGovern, the Democratic nominee in the 1972 presidential race, had to drop his running mate, Thomas Eagleton, immediately after the convention following revelations of mental instability. There is no suggestion that Patil falls into a comparable category, but it does establish a precedent of last-minute change (the deadline is Saturday afternoon) that politicians with inner voices can mull over. Alternatively, there is, of course, the “conscience vote” Indira Gandhi expediently discovered in 1969 and which L.K. Advani has craftily resurrected 38 years later.

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