Within a month, India will have a new President; and by now it is amply clear that veteran politician and current finance minister Pranab Mukherjee will be the country’s 13th President. This presidential race, however, will be remembered for two things, apart from, of course, the political drama that has unfolded in the run-up to deciding on the final nominations. One, the man who has emerged as the clear winner—Pranab Mukherjee and two, the revival of the debate about whether the President should be a ‘political’ or ‘non-political’ person.
The last few months have been nothing short of a nail biter with every political party keeping its cards close to the chest and refusing to reveal its candidate or who it would support until the last minute. With the Lok Sabha elections due in two years, political parties decided to use this election as a sort of show of strength and set the stage for the big battle of 2014.
However, now with the picture clear and the outcome almost decided, it is perhaps time to focus on the man who will give up his portfolio as finance minister to move to Raisina Hill. Pranab Mukherjee is a remarkable man, an astute and sharp politician who knows how to maneuver the winding and pot-holed paths of Indian politics. Today, apart from Congress president Sonia Gandhi, Mukherjee is perhaps the only man in the party who is equipped and perceptive enough to negotiate the political arena and is largely considered to be a fair man.
There are two broad aspects to Mukherjee’s elevation to the highest constitutional post in the country—a) what it means for the Congress and b) Mukherjee as the President.
Mukherjee has been the greatest trouble shooter for the Congress, particularly at times when the party has seen terrible political lows. Despite the trust deficit between Mukherjee and the Gandhi family, the former has always been asked to step in during any crisis because of his massive experience, knowledge of the constitution and a deep understanding of Indian politics and its ground realities. He, however, was never rewarded adequately for his contribution to the party. Mukherjee should have been the man chosen as Prime Minister by Sonia Gandhi in 2004, instead of the more low-key and less politically astute Manmohan Singh. The President’s post, thus, is well deserved for this man and it is only fair that the Congress has finally decided to support his personal ambition.
For the Congress, meanwhile, Mukherjee’s shift is a mixed bag. On one hand, it takes away the party’s most reliable trouble shooter and experienced leader, a huge loss at a time when it is anyway reeling under a series of crisis. On the other hand, however, it opens that tiny window of opportunity for the party to reinvent itself. The top leadership of the party had, in the last couple of years, been feeling that Mukherjee’s utility was diminishing. He was perhaps a bit indifferent and detached because there was no parity between his contribution and reward. Further, Mukherjee is the ‘old school type’; he was not showing signs of changing with times or adjusting to altered circumstances. His disastrous stint as finance minister and the retrograde policies he has brought are a case in point. Allowing his ego and personal views to come in the way of decisions and letting his temper get the better of him had perhaps even made him a burden for the Congress and the current government.
Today as it stands, the economy is a mess; the government an even bigger mess. Mukherjee’s absence will perhaps force the Congress to look towards newer and more in-tune-with-times leaders to fill in for the veteran and give the party a much-needed makeover. This, however, is the ideal circumstance. No other leader in the party has shown much promise, including Rahul Gandhi, and it will take 10 Janpath some effort and strategic, perhaps out-of the-box, thinking to use this opportunity to the fullest.
Despite his recent stumbling, there is little doubt that Mukherjee will make a very good President. His knowledge, experience and understanding of the country and its interplay of dynamics, his constitutional correctness and of course, his personal and amicable equations with almost all parties across the political spectrum will hold him in good stead. Given his stature and personal integrity, Mukherjee is unlikely to be just a rubber stamp or a ‘Congress agent’ as a President.
This brings us the final point about a political vs. a non-political person as President, a question that has been raised repeatedly in India, including in this election, and also across the world where similar systems exist. What does the constitutional head of a country like India, which has a Parliamentary system but a rather complex and demanding democracy, need to be like?
The President ought to be constitutionally wise and correct, should have a stature that is respected by the people and most importantly, by political leaders, should have a comprehensive understanding of and insight into the country’s politics and should by and large be bipartisan in his role. If an individual possesses these qualities, it really shouldn’t matter whether his background is political or not.
President’s post should not be about individual’s profession or background; it is about his/her stature, maturity, experience and suitability for the post.
However, it is wrong to presume that the President’s post is completely non-political; politically unbiased, yes. In today’s times of fractured mandates, coalition politics and conflicting political agendas and power-plays, the President has ceased to be a mere ceremonial post and has assumed a far more crucial role—of being a political watchdog and arbitrator. India has had several very ‘political’ Presidents in the past, while some have proved to be blatantly partisan; others have been revered for being courageous and just.
But it is wrong to assume that only a political President can be biased while a non-political one will be the epitome of fairness. Even an apolitical candidate would be endorsed by a political party and would hence, obviously have his affiliations and a sense of gratitude. At the same time, it is equally myopic to say that a non-political President is not equipped to deal with politically tricky and demanding situations. Not being a politician does not mean the person isn’t cued into politics and its various facets or that he/she does not have a shrewd and incisive political mind. Being non-political does not necessarily mean being ‘apolitical’.
The President’s post should not be about the individual’s profession or background; it is about his/her stature, maturity, experience and suitability for the post. And Pranab Mukherjee, who is as political as it can get, does fit the bill as per these criteria. The challenge for him, therefore, would be to rise above his political lineage and affections even while keeping the political animal in him alive.