President sahiba for India?(INDIA)

President sahiba for India?(INDIA)

Who is Pratibha Patil, and how is it that she is likely to become India's first woman president? Sonia Gandhi's 14 June announcement of Pratibha Patil's nomination had journalists scurrying to unearth some background on the worthy candidate; but no laudatory past arose, nor any skeleton in the closet. Evidently, she is just a potential 'common minimum candidate' to support the common minimum programme of the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA). Here is a candidate who cannot be accused of being "soft on saffron", as was the criticism by the left parties against the candidature of Shivraj Patil, current home minister and Sonia Gandhi's first choice as presidential nominee. The left also rejected the nomination of Karan Singh for his 'royal' background. Gandhi claimed that External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee, one of the early names thrown up and an acceptable candidate for the left, could not be "spared" from his current position.

Who is the Mystery woman?

It is telling that the Congress party appears not to wield sufficient clout with its current alliance partners, and subsequently had to bear the ignominy of two of its high-profile potential nominees – Singh and Home Minister Patil – being rejected by the left. This has also been a contest signifying an era of coalition politics, and the considerable role played by regional parties such as the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Dravida Munetra Kazhagam, in tilting the votes. This has also been occasion for unprecedented public wrangling played out in front of television cameras, and the subject of SMS polls – rather unseemly for an office that has been occupied in the past by such dignified statesmen and philosophers as Rajendra Prasad, S Radhakrishnan and K R Narayanan.

Following the tenure of the aeronautical-engineer A P J Abdul Kalam, there has been a shift towards selecting a 'political' nominee to occupy New Delhi's Rashtrapati Bhawan on Raisina Hill – the residential estate purported to be the largest of any head of state in the world.

Why this intense lobbying for a position that is largely ceremonial? Although India's president is the head of state and the supreme commander of the country's armed forces, in reality the presidency has had little power. Particularly since the time Indira Gandhi installed Giani Zail Singh in 1982, the post of president has been diminished to a rubber stamp for the ruling party. Powers to declare national emergency, or 'president's rule' in a state facing extreme turbulence, or to withhold assent to controversial bills passed by Parliament – all these remain largely theoretical, and few presidents have managed to assert their veto powers on actions of the prime minister. In mid-2006, for instance, President Kalam, after initially sending back for reconsideration a controversial bill on broadening the scope of the 'offices of profit', which would disqualify a person from being a member of Parliament, had to give his assent after the UPA ensured that the Parliament passed the bill without any change.

The UPA had by that time made it clear that it was not in favour of a second term for Kalam. Meanwhile, the 'third front' of eight regional parties – including the Jayalalitha-led AIADMK and Mulayam Singh Yadav's Samajwadi Party – in its new avatar of the United National Progressive Alliance (UNPA), are throwing their weight behind President Kalam, persuading him to contest a second term. While President Kalam, the 'people's president', might have attracted votes in an open election, voting by the electoral college, which consists of the elected members of both houses of the Parliament and the elected members of the state legislative assemblies, is largely dependent on the diktat of the political parties.

1Although it was the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that installed President Kalam in 2002, it has agreed to back current Vice President Bhairon Singh Shekhawat as an independent candidate. As such, the party was put in a bind by President Kalam's late-June indication that he would be willing to consider contesting a second term due to the "overwhelming love and affection from various sections of people" – although the president hedged that bet by making his candidature contingent on his election being a "certainty". That contingency seems unlikely, given that the UPA, the left and even some constituents of the National Democratic Alliance (including the Shiv Sena of Maharashtra) are opposed to Kalam's candidature. The Shiv Sena, incidentally, is also in a spot, as it needs to oppose the Congress even while championing the interests of Pratibha Patil, a Maharashtrian.

Lifelong loyalist
With the numbers stacked in her favour, the 12th president of India is likely to be Pratibha Patil, a 72-year-old, uncontroversial, low-profile Congress loyalist. Pratibhatai (as she is known in Maharashtra) has been in politics since 1962, when she was elected to the Maharashtra Assembly, where she remained until 1985. She has also been a member of the Rajya Sabha. Patil's CV also tells us that she was a college table-tennis champ, and even once organised women home-guards.

The candidate's main qualification appears to be her steadfast allegiance to the Congress, and to the Gandhi family in particular. Even after her mentor, Yashwant Rao Chavan, parted ways with Indira Gandhi after the Emergency, Pratibha Patil stood by the clan. Her loyalty paid off, and she was appointed to the Maharashtra PCC (Pradesh Congress Committee) by Rajiv Gandhi from 1988 through 1990. Her appointment as governor of Rajasthan in 2004 was also interpreted as a reward for her loyalty.

It is unfortunate that an office that should be occupied by a person of outstanding qualities, one who can remain non-partisan despite political pressures, is now part of the hurly-burly of coalition politics, and that the primary criterion should be loyalty – not even to a party, but to a family. The Congress's sudden backing of a woman candidate is not convincing as a show of progressiveness, given that no other woman's name came up before all the other nominees were rejected by the various UPA coalition members. In a post-facto justification, Pratibha Patil's nomination is being touted as a step towards women's empowerment. All we can say is, try another one.

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