Byline by M J Akbar: Tomorrow’s Agenda
You can argue with success but can you win the argument? An argument is a conversation about detail, and the more minor the nuance the finer the argument. Success is a heavy blanket that tends to shroud details. A happy result diffuses blemishes and paints a positive gloss on reasons for victory. But an election in a functioning and even zealous democracy is only a link in a chain that connects to the next poll, and only an honest analysis of the reasons will determine whether they become seeds of future fortune, or misfortune.
The election for the President of India on 19 July had a limited electorate. Only legislators, either Members of Parliament or the Assembly, could vote.
No legislator voted for either Mrs Pratibha Patil or Mr Bhairon Singh Shekhawat. Each person voted for himself or herself. Those who abstained were equally motivated by self-interest.
The result was determined early on, when the Congress softly dropped the message that the defeat of its candidate would mean the collapse of the ruling alliance. For the allies, the risk was not worth any alternative game, for the very good reason that there was no alternative game. Neither was heroism on the agenda of the non-Congress parties outside government, whether in the chipped NDA or the confused Third Front. They preferred any possible local gain to a national objective. Shiv Sena opted for sect instead of its traditional political alliance with the BJP, and its leader Balasaheb Thackeray was duly rewarded with a formal visit by the Congress chief minister of Maharashtra, who decided that this was not the right moment to consider whether Mr Thackeray was communal or anti-Muslim. Another partner of the BJP, Mamata Banerjee, decided that she did not need to alienate any Bengali Muslim sympathy by voting for Shekhawat. With friends such as these, the BJP could hardly hope for fervour from possible bedfellows. Chandra Babu Naidu in Andhra Pradesh and Mulayam Singh Yadav in Uttar Pradesh are anxious for Muslim support in the next election. Why would they risk the future, and a probable alliance with the Left, for a present that was at best uncertain? The cause was lost before the election was lost.
Neither character nor ideology, or what passes for ideology, made any difference to this limited electorate of legislators. The BJP believed that it could make corruption a decisive difference, which would sway legislators. Corruption is an issue with the man on the street, who is forced to give bribes in order to survive. It cannot be much of an issue among those more accustomed to taking money rather than giving it. At least one of the voters, a Member of Parliament, took a break from jail, his residence since arrest for kidnapping and murder.
The Congress made much out of the fact that their candidate would be the first woman to become President. But Mrs Pratibha Patil is going to Rashtrapati Bhavan by accident rather than design. Hers was the last name on a long list that was discussed among the UPA partners at much length. Women’s liberation would have been far better served if her name had been at the top of the list rather than at the bottom. A fluke cannot be converted into an ideological virtue.
All the problems of last-minute selection were immediately apparent. Even minimal due diligence would have disclosed a rather awkward proximity to political and fiscal improprieties that are easily hidden under a distant carpet in a small town, but can hardly escape the glare of a searchlight that is thrown on a presidential candidate’s track record.
Mrs Patil’s exotic habits extend to an optimistic conversation with a dead guru, but that may be less of a problem in a country where no respectable politician would be seen without his astrologer. In fact, there may be politicians searching for the dead guru now after her spectacular rise from anonymity to President. The only question now is whether she carries such a spirited view of destiny into the office that she will inhabit next week.
The outgoing President, Abdul Kalam, was an apolitical bachelor-rocket scientist who created a formidable constituency among children by promising them an India that would rise to the leadership of the world in the 21st century. Mrs Pratibha Patil will be more representative of today’s political class: holier than thou in public and shadier than thou in private.
Elections to the office of Prime Minister and Parliament are about power. Elections to the office of President are about dignity. That is an office that has been, more or less, preserved from the fetid whiff of politics ever since Dr Rajendra Prasad became the first President of the Republic of India. The new incumbent of Rashtrapati Bhavan brings with her a bit of malodorous baggage that will need some urgent spring cleaning to prevent the odour from spreading.
The new President will get the palace, but the loser could get the sympathy of the ordinary voter, who did not elect the President of India this week, but will certainly elect (or not) the electors of the President very soon. A Catch 22 lurking around the corner if the Congress does not take pre-emptive action. President Kalam has now made it virtually a part of the President’s duties to interact freely around the country, and meet children. I do hope that President Patil refrains from theorising about the barbaric Mughals and how they forced Indian women to wear veil for self-protection.
The Congress is making a mistake when it compares Mrs Patil to her opponent. The comparison that should worry the party is between Mrs Patil and the candidate that the Congress could have had. Home minister Shivraj Patil was the public frontrunner for weeks. I do not know what the Congress or the allies had against him, but he would have been an infinitely better choice. Pranab Mukherjee would have lent maturity and finesse to the highest office of the land. The UPA has selected an excellent candidate for Vice-President in Hamid Ansari, a distinguished diplomat who will, unlike Mrs Patil, happily declare his assets.
The shambles within the Opposition is already deflecting the Congress from its own inadequacies. There is a mood of mini-euphoria, and a feeling that the election for the Rashtrapati Bhavan is the prelude for re-election to Prime Minister’s House. General elections will be fought on different territory, by different rules, among different voters. A victory on Raisina Hill is no substitute for defeat in Uttar Pradesh. The agenda for today’s friendships, for example with Mayawati, is exhausted with this victory.
Next year’s agenda is a different one: who will dominate the next Parliament? All bets are open.