Can one think of a more unworthy candidate for the President of India than PA Sangma? Sadly, one can, and we don’t have to search further than the present incumbent of Rashtrapati Bhavan.
But whatever the views of Pratibha Patil’s past record, and her family entourages on foreign trips in the last few years, she did conduct herself with a certain dignity. You really cannot say that of Sangma: well before the BJP decided to support him, he was rushing around here and there with folded hands, soliciting support for himself. If you aspire to a position as exalted as this, you should show you are fit for it, before you get it. It’s no use donning a bandgala after the event and pretending to be dignified when you have debased yourself so completely already.
Apart from this, does Sangma have the intellectual credentials for the office? His record as a minister in the central cabinet was not particularly distinguished, but so have the records of any number of other ministers. He has also done flip-flops on his stated positions, most notably about Sonia Gandhi’s foreign origins. He, in fact, joined Sharad Pawar in leaving the Congress party on this point and starting the NCP. But later he recanted, and in fact gave a public apology to Mrs Gandhi for his “wrong stand”. But, then, Pranab Mukerjee too had left the Congress at one time, so you could say changing one’s mind is par for the course for a politician.
What Sangma could have talked about emphatically is his record as the Lok Sabha Speaker. This is probably one of the most exacting of all possible of jobs, and Sangma’s performance, by all accounts, was not bad at all. Why, then, does the candidate himself give the impression that he doesn’t think too much of his own record, or his intellectual abilities? All he has done in his cringe-inducing campaign is to harp upon the fact that he is a tribal, and solely for that reason, deserves to be ‘uplifted’. A tribal, a Dalit a Muslim, a Sikh, a Christian, a Hindu, or whatever (as long as he or she is a citizen of India) can aspire to be President, but they must first show they have the qualifications for the position. Sangma’s worst enemy is surely Sangma himself.
But, in the end, does all this matter? After all you could argue that the President’s job is purely ceremonial, with no real or discretionary powers. That all he has to do is welcome foreign dignitaries, preside over state banquets, accept the credentials of ambassadors, represent India abroad on good-will visits, and other such mind-numbingly boring activities. That may be largely true, but we know that in times of crises, like when the government falls because of a defeat in the Lok Sabha, or defections or whatever, the President plays a vital role. This has happened more than once in the recent past, and given our fragile coalition governments, is likely to happen again.
You could also argue that if such a contingency arrives, the President is advised by his secretariat consisting of the best and most experienced IAS officers, so that his own role even in these situations is limited. Possibly so; but suppose a particular President decides to be head-strong, and ignore the recommendations of his advisers, what happens then?
This is really why the man or woman who becomes President must have wide experience in public service, and have shown the intellectual capacity to deal with complex situations. We all know that these qualities have not necessarily been present in some of our recent Presidents, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t start now.
Sadly, both the Congress and BJP have missed a huge chance to evolve a system where irrespective of who is in power, the party in government and the main opposition would get together and arrive at a consensus on a candidate acceptable to all. Pranab Mukherjee was one such candidate, with his excellent relationships with all political leaders. As for width and length of experience, obviously he has no equal. Instead of that we have the unedifying picture of one candidate begging for votes, while the BJP tries to derail Mukherjee’s candidature on a technicality and even threatens to go to the courts.
How will all this end? Whatever the result, it will all end badly. That’s the only certainty in today’s sordid political world.