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Choice of President, past and present: Where Congress 'failed' but BJP 'succeeded'

By Vidya Bhushan Rawat* 

Droupadi Murmu has expectedly won the Presidential contest defeating Yashwant Sinha with a huge margin. A large number of individual members of non-NDA political parties supported her, apart from the ruling parties in Andhra Pradesh, Odisha and Jharkhand. These parties did not want to be seen as opposing the candidature of the first President of India hailing from an Adivasi community.
Indeed, Adivasis are the first citizens of the country. They have got the first right over our natural resources, which they have protected. Hence, a right person at the right place needs to be applauded. Yet, the fact is, the President’s post is ceremonial in nature. Obviously, one can’t expect Murmu to go against the government, which brought her into the Rashtrapati Bhavan.
However, expectations run hight that she will speak up on the critical issues where things might go wrong, particularly with regarded to Adivasis, Dalits and other marginalised communities, who are victims of the new ‘development’ paradigm. One expects her to question the unlawful eviction and protect the rights of the Adivasis, in particular.
The Presidential elections highlight the failure of most opposition parties to understand the BJP's gameplan in fielding Murmu. Yashwant Sinha said, there should not be any ‘rubber stamp’ in the Rashtrapati Bhavan. Tejashwi Yadav said, "We don’t need a ‘murti’, a statue, as our President."
When Murmu was declared elected, Indranil Chatterjee, Kolkata-based deputy general manager of "India Today", wrote a social media post which cannot be qualified anything but extremely racist-casteist. He said, he was old fashioned and "didn't want an Adivasi to rule us."
He tweeted, "Few chairs are not meant for 'All' & have a dignity attached to them. Do we allow a sweeper to perform Durga Puja? Can a Hindu teach at a Madrasah? These are nothing but cheap socio-political gimmicks of the ruling party in creating a Rubber Stamp Constitutional Head, so that laws can be passed easily showing a middle finger to the Opposition parties.” 
He was dismissed from the India Today group for his offensive post.
Such statements and posts suggest the casteist mindset which does not want to give the Dalits and Adivasis a chance to participate in the power structure. There is a failure to understand that, when the ‘secular’ and ‘liberal’ spaces remain dominated by feudal Brahmanical mindset, any outreach by Hindutva towards the Dalits-Adivasis would be welcomed by the respective communities.
The fact is, the opposition parties had already lost the Presidential polls when they fielded Yashwant Sinha, an import from the BJP. He may think very high about himself, but the fact is, nobody even remembers his tenure as finance minister.
KR Narayanan, Rajendra Prasad
The fact is, Sinha, and others like him, became Modi critics only after they realise that they have lost all chances of getting into the Cabinet. The other such ‘great’ is Arun Shourie who, is favourite of the Lutyens media, as none of his eulogisers find time to question his writings. While Shourie is an open critic of the reservation policy, Sinha was in the opposition camp when the Mandal report was being accepted and placed in Parliament by the then prime minister VP Singh. Sinha is also known to have hobnobbed with the Ranbir Sena.
Victory of Murmu was a foregone conclusion, but the margin shows how her candidature created division in the opposition camp. It is unfortunate that the opposition parties could not field a stronger candidate. They didn't consider to opt for a consensus candidate, either. They just wanted to score a point and embarrass the BJP, as Sinha was a prominent party leader, without realising that, beyond media headlines, he can make little impact.
Nor did the opposition try to see through why the elevation of Murmu to the Rashtrapati Bhavan would give the BJP and Sangh Parivar enormous strength and goodwill of the Adivasi community, even though the Adivasis today face the biggest threat to their existence, natural resources, forests and water.
It is time one looks into the track record of some of those who have occupied the Rashtrapati Bhavan and their relationship with the leader of those times. The first president, Dr Rajendra Prasad, had serious differences with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru on various issues, even though they continued having a very healthy relationship, cemented since the days of their struggle together in the freedom movement.
Dr Rajendra Prasad was staunchly opposed to the Hindu Code Bill along with many other members of the ruling party as well as the Jan Sangh. Baba Saheb Ambedkar had worked on this Bill day and night. It gave women the right to choose and freedom. Many of the luminaries of the ‘right’ within the Congress as well as outside it called the Bill against our culture. They said it would destroy ‘family values’.
Dr Rajendra Prasad participated in the inauguration of the Somnath temple against the advice of Nehru, who felt that it would be wrong on his part to be at a religious function as head of the state.
After Nehru's demise, Indira Gandhi faced the biggest challenge in 1969 within the party, which threatened her leadership. The dominant leadership fielded N Sanjeeva Reddy. For the first time, the Prime Minister opposed her party’s official candidate and supported VV Giri, who contested as an independent candidate and defeated Reddy.
The real degeneration of the Presidential office began thereafter. In August 1974, Indira Gandhi wanted a strong loyalist at the Raisina Hills. Thus, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed was made the President. It is said that when Indira Gandhi imposed Emergency on June 25, 1975 night, the President signed on the dotted line on a resolution that wasn't cleared by the Cabinet.
Giani Zail Singh, VV Giri
Despite an impressive political career, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed went down in the history of India as a complete rubber stamp President. He passed away during his Presidency, which brought in Reddy as the next the President. He was elected unopposed. Between 1977 and 1982, Reddy had to deal with three Prime Ministers -- Morarji Desai, Charan Singh and Indira Gandhi.
In 1982, Indira Gandhi proposed the name of Giani Zail Singh, who was Union Home Minister then. At that time the Congress had massive mandate in Parliament and states. After he became President, media organisations quoted Zail Singh as saying "if Indira ji asks me to sweep the floor, I will do it."
One does not know whether Zail Singh ever said this, but he was considered extremely loyal. Be that as it may, for the first time, the privileged classes and castes actually felt offended with his elevation, because he came from an extremely humble background. Nor was he part of the English speaking elite.
On October 31, 1984, Indira Gandhi was assassinated. Zail Singh, abroad, cut short his trip and returned to India. He appointed Rajiv Gandhi as Prime Minister without any formal meeting of either the Cabinet or the Congress Parliamentary Party. In the din of nationalism, nobody had the time to question the move.
On returning to power in 1985 with massive mandate, Rajiv Gandhi started ignoring Zail Singh. He was not allowed to visit abroad. Many of his trips were blocked. Rajiv Gandhi did not bother to meet the President after a foreign trip. Zail Singh was deeply pained and hurt.
When Rajiv Gandhi persisted, Zail Singh showed his power. He dis not have the sophistry of words, but created enormous crisis in the government by consulting legal luminaries and political leaders about his ‘right to dismiss the Prime Minister’. He sought to define his rights vis-a-vis the Prime Minister and the Cabinet, since Rajiv Gandhi was not reporting anything to the him. VP Singh, then in opposition, saved the situation.
Thereafter, Rajiv Gandhi brought in R Venkatraman, whose tenure was also tough, as it saw fall of the Congress government at the Centre in 1989, followed by two short-term governments of VP Singh and Chandra Shekhar. Venkatraman was considered a copybook President.
After Venkatraman, it was the turn of another Congress veteran, Shankar Dayal Sharma, who was vice president prior to being elevated. Around this time, India entered into the era of coalitions, hence consensus building was important.
In 1997 the United Front government led by Inder Kumar Gujaral, which depended on the support of the Congress, looked for a ‘suitable’ presidential candidate. Till that time, the Rashtrapati Bhavan was a domain of either Brahmins or elite Muslims. The Congress had already made two Brahmins as Presidents and perhaps was looking for a third time.
Pranab Mukherjee, APJ Abdul Kalam
Suddenly, former Prime Minister VP Singh addressed a press conference and pushed the name of Dr KR Narayanan, Vice-President then. VP Singh's move compelled political parties to agree on his name. Narayanan got 95% of votes, polled, defeating TN Sheshan, who contested against him.
Narayanan was one of the finest Presidents of India. He redefined Presidentship. He talked extremely sensibly and reminded the government time and again about its responsibilities. He never signed on dotted lines and returned many bills for reconsideration. Narayanan was the true custodian of the Constitution, and people all over the country felt proud of him.
Narayanan had raised the prestige of the Rashtrapati Bhawan so high that the BJP-led NDA government thereafter was forced to manage a consensus, APJ Abdul Kalam, whom it projected as an ‘ideal’ and 'nationalist' Muslim. Kalam became president in 2002. He became extremely popular among youth, particularly students, who would love to listen to him. Through Kalam, the BJP made inroads among the urban middle classes.
In 2007, when UPA was in power, Congress president Sonia Gandhi gave preference to a family loyalist, an extreme light weight, Pratibha Patil, who became the first woman President of India. In 2012, UPA fielded Pranab Mukherjee because of various internal political compulsions. Mukherjee had always aspired to be Prime Minister. He was an ‘expert’ in parliamentary rules and procedures.
In 2017, the Narendra Modi-led NDA made Ramnath Kovind as its candidate for the post of President. His Koli Dalit identity was used by the BJP during the Gujarat elections. Now, Droupadi Murmu, a Santhal Adivasi from Mayurbhanj district of Odisha, will be sworn in as President.
Looking at the difference between the Congress and the BJP in their choice of President, except duing the Nehru era, when there was inner party democracy, after Indira Gandhi, till UPA-II, the Congress preferred candidates picked up by the Gandhi family and its loyalists, who did not bring any dividends to the party. Can anyone say that Pratibha Patil’s elevation as President helped Congress with women votes? What was her contribution? The Congress failed to bring in its socialist-secular vision through its Presidential candidates.
Even a lifelong Congressman and Nehruvian like Narayanan became Vice President and President of India because of strong and timely intervention by VP Singh and his associates, and not because of the Congress. Pranab Mukherjee meant nothing to the Congress, as after he became President, he looked for a second term. Not without reason, he did not utter a word against the Narendra Modi government.
On the other side, BJP has used the identity of the Presidents for building up a narrative that helped the party. Through Kalam, it sent a message that the party likes ‘nationalist’ Muslims. Kovind’s ascendency as President might not have given the party much in garnering Dalit votes, but it did help the party at some places.
Now, not opting for consensus, and making Droupadi Murmu President, BJP has sent a message to the tribal and other communities that it cares for them. In a country where people look for ‘success’ stories and forget their own pains and sufferings, Murmu’s elevation will help the party in states like Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Odisha and Madhya Pradesh.
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*Human rights defender. Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/vbrawat; twitter: @freetohumanity

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