The presidential tamasha: Jai ho democracy!

“There are certain offices which are not to be sought but offered,” Pranab Mukherjee said loftily when he landed in Chennai to flag off his presidential campaign. Then he promptly embarked on a whistlestop tour of the country to seek the office of the president of India.

The presidential election in India has usually been a somewhat staid affair. The campaign was really about the lack of a campaign, at least a public one. It always came with backroom politicking and strategic phone calls and media gossip. Nehru and Patel bickered over the very first president. Nehru wanted C. Rajagopalachari. Patel wanted Rajendra Prasad. Nehru lost that one. In 1969 his daughter out-maneuvered the Syndicate and pushed V. V. Giri into office. But even then Indira Gandhi played coy, using the euphemism of a  “conscience vote” and letting her silence about the Congress’ official nominee Sanjeeva Reddy speak volumes.

But in 2012 we have real electioneering with full-fledged band baaja baraat.

Pranab Mukherjee launched his campaign in Chennai to a resounding welcome with drum beats. His opponent Purno Sangma danced with his own hill tribe and beat their drums.  It’s all very telling. The presidential campaign in India is now about beating your own drum. Vigorously.

In 2012 we have real electioneering with full-fledged band baaja baraat.

So you have Sangma himself demanding debates, playing the tribal card and digging up whatever dirt he can find that could stick to Pranab. Mukherjee tries to act like an above-the-fray front runner and ignore the pesky Sangma. But obviously with today’s tattered parliamentary arithmetic, the Congress cannot take any victory for granted. So every day brings a new campaign stop for Pranab Mukherjee –  Kolkata, Bangalore, Agartala.

He will dog Sangma’s footsteps in Kashmir and has campaigned in his backyard in Guwahati. Pranab Mukherjee has spent most of his political life in the Rajya Sabha. He only won a Lok Sabha election in 2004 after 35 years in politics. Now at 76, the man who was never a grassroots politician is criss-crossing the country for a post that is supposed to be above the political hurly burly.

He is even reduced to typical poll pandering though the sops he can offer are rather unspectacular. No free laptops, mixies or gold for mangalsutras. “I will visit north-east first as President”  is all poor Pranab-da can promise. Meanwhile Sangma is playing up the tribal card for all its worth, pleading “(Tribals) have given our land, our forest, our natural resources… please recognise us,” as if the Garo Christian from Meghalaya is suddenly blood brother with an Adivasi from deepest Bastar and a Raisina Hill address for Sangma can make amends for all of the Indian state’s sins against its tribals.

There’s something a little unseemly about all of this. "This is not an election for student bodies in schools and colleges," fumes Congress spokesperson Manish Tewari but it's beginning to feel a lot like that. Our highest office been reduced to just another political office to be squabbled over by motley power-grubbing satraps. The candidates themselves are firing salvoes at each other. “This is becoming a political chess game which is devaluing this very lofty post,” Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw tells the Business Standard. The parliamentary affairs minister, Pawan Kumar Bansal complains that the “the campaign for the highest office in the country is being vitiated” by Sangma. And Baba Ramdev says the Congress is “lowering the dignity” of “a respectable constitutional post”  by nominating Pranab Mukherjee. But what’s most interesting about this whole affair is how blasé the general public is about it. Frankly my dear, we don’t give a damn. In an India, saddled with corruption scams and ministers who walk out of jail to a hero’s welcome, our threshold for vitiation is quite high.

“(T)he Indian presidency has shed its phony dignity of neutrality and has finally entered politics,” writes Manu Joseph in the New York Times. The age of what Joseph calls “the harmless old people who were likely to remain harmless” being put out to pasture in Rashtrapati Bhavan is over. Pranab pretends otherwise when he says, “The president has no politics.” But we all know the post was never really above politics. When one party had overwhelming parliamentary muscle it could pretend to play statesman-statesman. Now the mask has slipped off. The candidates have to work for their votes. They have to defend their records and curry favour with folded hands. They have to be, well, actual candidates. Why should the president’s office be the sacred cow that’s immune to the thrust and parry that is par for the course in any other political campaign? Especially since our presidents, from Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed to Zail Singh to Pratibha Patil, have hardly been paragons of non-partisan virtue while in office.

We won’t see a debate on television between our two current contenders anytime soon. But there is suddenly a touch of democracy, warts and all, about the nation’s highest office.  Perhaps that is not so bad after all.