Monday, June 18, 2007

Indian Presidency: Symbolism and Beyond

Of late, presidential election has become a topic of popular debate in India. So much so that our mail boxes, TV channels, newspapers, and magazines are full of campaigns and debates on who should be the next president. From Kalam to Narayanamoorthy, the popular imagination has never been so lively about a presidential election. After all, as a friend reminds us on one of the chain mails, electing the president has always been the prerogative of the Electoral College and not of the general public. And, all said and done, it has always been a political appointment too, no matter how much ever you dislike that fact. So what brings in the new interest in presidential elections?

24/7 TV? Maybe, yes. But there is one more thing that you need to factor in. The Kalam effect.

Like it or not, APJ Abdul Kalam made presidency a thing of popular imagination. He played to the middle-class galleries. He delivered inspirational speeches that would give the motivational gurus a good run for their money. He spoke about dreams, vision, and hope. And, the middle-class India never got tired of dreaming and hoping; they never got tired of giving standing ovations to Dr Kalam, either.

Kalam seldom spoke of the hard realities (did he ever?), he exhorted the newspapers to play down the negative stories (read the hardcore news), he wanted the media to paint a rosy picture (a.l.a., the India Shining campaign, perhaps), he vividly narrated how the Israeli newspapers dumped all that Hamas killing and suicide attacks to inner pages and celebrated the positive stories of growth and development, of hopes and dreams on their front pages. Well, there is more. So many more speeches that vie for the most-forwarded speech honor along with those of the Narayanamurthys and Bill Gateses of the world. Kalam's speeches keep coming back to us from people whose only contribution to the democratic process is selective forwarding of mails. So, when the time to think of our next president came, his fan club started campaigning for his second term through chain mails and blogs. They even asked us to sign an online memorandum seeking a second term for him. Mails kept flooding our mail boxes, until Kalam himself put an end to it saying he wouldn't seek a second term.

Then suddenly something happened. At some ceremony hosted by Infosys and attended by Kalam, an over-enthusiastic Infoscion asked the President, what did he think of Narayanamoorthy as the next President. Of course, playing to the gallery once again, (or was it just a matter of courtesy?!—courtesy, which the Infoscion, who threw such an embarrassing question at their guest, lacked), Kalam responded: “Fantastic!" Rather he chanted that three times, I read. That set the tongues wagging again. And, yes, Narayanamoorthy fits the middle-class aspirations, he lives one of the most colorful dreams of middle-class India, and yes, once again, the forward-mailers, the new opinion leaders of the great Indian middle class, were back with their campaigns, obscenely rigged surveys, and chain mails. Fortunately, that failed to go beyond the initial hype and died a slow death and the mailing middle-class went back to their daily routines, chasing their rainbow.

But, now the focus is back on the presidential election, once again. Prathibha Patel’s nomination set up the new debate. People from the opposing camps suggested that it was symbolism and nothing else. They said she was chosen because of her gender. Some others said, she was pliant and would make a female Fakrudheen Ali Ahmed. And the middle-class felt disillusioned to see one more political appointment at Rashtrapathi Bhavan.

Suddenly people seem to have developed a problem with political appointments to Presidency. They respond as if this is the first ever political appointment. In fact, it has always been political appointments, of people whom the ruling parties thought would fall in their line, sign on the dotted line as and when needed. One doesn’t need to go too far in our history. Zail Singh, R Venkataraman, S D Sharma, K R Narayanan, all of them had affiliations with the leading parties of their times. And many of these nominations had symbolic value too—Zail Singh as president when Punjab was burning; KR Narayanan, in the post-Mandal India. (Beyond symbolism, Narayanan deserved the seat as much as any of his illustrious predecessors. Many a time, he proved that too. He spoke up whenever required, and proved that the constitutional figurehead does not necessarily be a rubberstamp always. )

Then came Kalam, the poster boy of middle-India. And what a symbolic act it was. A Muslim: celibate, vegetarian, veena-playing Muslim. So different from the Muslim Other that the then ruling Sangh Parivar was trying to project as the spoilsports in this holy land. Kalam was celebrated for he was so unlike a Muslim, for it suited the BJP, smarting from the Gujarat pogrom, to have a Muslim as the President. And, Kalam, with no political background, no inclination to deal with the hard questions, happily went around the town preaching vision statements. He evaded the hard questions, avoided confrontations, and happily parroted the Sangh Parivar line that India as a country had never invaded any country and that India had always been a victim to invasions and intrusions (he’d conveniently forgotten the fact that the concept of India as a country happened much later, evolved during the struggle for independence, and that we were just another bunch of infighting kingdoms till then).

Kalam was celebrated as a Muslim who reads Gita everyday and has tremendous patriotism. (I fail to get the connection there. I don’t read Gita, does that mean I’m less patriotic? Or is it that only Muslims have to read Gita to affirm their patriotism?) People with saffron undies jus exclaimed over their sundowners: why can’t THEY all be like him? And, a most sought after symbol was created: A Muslim, so unlike a “Muslim”. And the middle-class India, who are so eager to hit forward to any mails that suited their political interests, didn’t have any problem in celebrating this symbol.

Now coming back to Prathibha Patel and her candidature, what if it is a symbolic gesture towards the women folks in India, who have been fighting for 33% reservations all along? Or are we trying to say that they don’t even deserve this symbolic support, appreciation for their rights and abilities? Why are we so worried about its symbolic nature? Is it just because it doesn’t suit our ideals, the values of a depoliticized lot that is looking for motivational gurus, people who share their dislike for politics? Prathibha Patel is a politician, and ours is a democratic country with strong political affiliations. And if you think you can elect the president or the government of this country through e-mail campaigns, without ever bothering to vote in an election, well, sit back and relax. There are others who actively participate in this political process and have their say in the way our democracy works. Let them decide. Or, stop this armchair activism and join the queue to vote next time.

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