The sack-race to Raisina Hill
Mathew Thomas 22 June 2012

How could some sanity be brought into the process of selection of the person for the highest office of the land? Unfortunately, there are no substitutes for political maturity and ethics

Sack races are usually a children’s sporting event. It tests ability to run with one’s feet inside a sack. This prevents full movement of the legs and reduces the strides. The uncanny parallel that this metaphor draws to the presidential election is that the next president would be similarly hamstrung by the quarters from where the support is derived to win the race. Three-legged races are also popular sports in schools. In this, children are paired for the race. The children in the pairs, positioned next to each other have one leg of the one tied to the nearest leg of their partner. This metaphor too could find application to the current presidential election scenario. When a party sponsors a candidate, the party and the candidate become a pair in the three-legged race. Media coverage and the actions of the dramatis personae leaves one wondering whether the election to the highest constitutional office in the world’s largest democracy is a farce, facade or pantomime. It has elements of all three and more.

In the past, this election, except for one, was always a tame affair, a foregone conclusion, and no one was particularly bothered by the innocuous incumbent in the palace of the former viceroys who ruled India on behalf of the British monarchy. The position was, and perhaps still is, an ornamental one, like the British model from which it was descended. Why then has it now become so contentious? The questioned could be answered best by looking at why the British monarchy has survived so long without being embroiled in political party polemics. The maturity of the British monarchy and political parties of the United Kingdom could be a reason why the monarchy has remained apolitical there and political parties have not dragged it into controversies. This is not to say that the monarchy, an anachronism in modern governance, has not had its share of unsavoury public disputations.  

Viewed in this light, the lack of political maturity could be a cause for the tragicomedy being played out. Perhaps, it is an indication of the fractured polity of the nation. The forces at play are many and more convoluted than ever. Looking at the events thus far, one cannot but be amazed how Indian democracy functions. The two major political groupings, the UPA and the NDA, are certainly alliances of a sort. Whether they have aspects of unity, progressiveness, nationhood or democratic ideals is questionable. A third, equally powerful force in this political chess game is the regional grouping. This third, have the power to pull the central coalitions in different directions. Another factor, one that could be fundamental to the underlying agendas of both the central majors and the regional satraps, is corruption and the need for alliances to counter likely consequences. Of course, the “satraps of Raisina Hill” (with apologies to David Nyhan) are not quiet.

X-raying the forces at work

The Congress and Pranab have decided to adopt the political and adult version of the children’s three-legged race. Whether the latter would remain with his leg tied to the party, he served loyally for half-a-century is a moot point. The internal and inherent contradictions within the NDA have paralysed it, albeit temporarily. Although India has a parliamentary system with the president’s powers being limited, there is scope, as the parties perceive, for the president to tilt one way or the other to create competitive advantage or disadvantage.

This then is the compulsion for having “our man” positioned in Raisina Hill in time for the 2014 election. Does the premise denigrate the office and person? It does. That the 2014 election would render a fractured verdict is not in doubt. The tenant at Raisina would have the discretion of calling upon either the leader of the largest party or (and this is important) the largest combination of parties to form the government. Hardly any discretion is involved in the former. It is simple arithmetic. The latter gives scope for manoeuvring and manipulation.

What is in it for the regional players? There is still time for 2014. Some of them would like to be on the right side of the current power equation. These have sufficient skeletons in their cupboards and if the Centre unleashes ‘investigative’ agencies at their beck and call, things could become pretty uncomfortable for them. What else could account for Mulayam’s volte-face? Of course, he has exhibited in the past, a genetic disposition towards such behaviour. Knowing this, how Mamata fell for his machinations remains a mystery. Mulayam’s explanation for his u-turn is as pathetic as it can get.

Regional players have problems galore, both politically and economically. The Left cannot be seen to be on the side with BJP. So too Mulayam, whose oft-stated intent is to keep BJP out, cannot side with them against the Congress. Down south, AIDMK and DMK cannot be on the same side. Nitesh in Bihar cannot go alongside Modi in Gujarat. Mamata needs central funds, but cannot stomach the Left. NCP and Shiv Sena are daggers drawn.

“Politics is the art of the possible”, is a well-worn cliché. When the possible permutations and combinations are infinite, the choice becomes difficult like in any chess game, so too on political chessboard.

The losers

In this battle of political wits, the loser of course is the hapless aam aadmi. The nation too is a loser. As unscrupulous political one-up-manship takes centre stage, the country becomes the laughing stock of the world. The repercussions of this on the economic well-being are difficult to fathom. The foreign investor would not know which way to turn. Domestic industry would not know which horse to back. Their cost could be high. Our hungry millions could become and remain hungrier. Political parties and politicians on the losing side would have their ‘businesses’ in deep waters.

The antidote

How could some sanity be brought into the process of selection of the person for the highest office of the land? Would constitutional changes help? One could change to a system wherein a combination of popular vote and an electoral college is mandated for presidential elections. One could stipulate that no one who has been a political party member for a decade prior to the date of election is eligible. There could be numerous ways to prevent the ugly gamesmanship. Ultimately, there are no substitutes for political maturity and ethics.

Two quotations come to mind as a proper end this piece of writing. One from David Nyhan says, “The thing I'll miss most is the chance to shine a little flashlight on a dark corner, where a wrong was done to a powerless peon, where a scarred politician maybe deserved a better fate, where the process went awry, or the mob needed to be calmed down and herded in another direction”. This article exhorts all people to shine a little flash light on a dark corner of our nation. The other quote, is from the pugnacious Englishman, Churchill who, opposing Indian independence, said, “The country would pass into the hands of rogues, rascals and freebooters. Not a glass water will escape taxation; and the blood of these innocent millions will be on (pointing to Atlee, then PM in the UK) your head, Mr Atlee”. Looking at the expose of convicted murderer gangsters in UP jails holding fort in public while politicians and police officers bury their heads, ostrich like, one wonders whether Churchill was indeed clairvoyant.

Nagesh Kini
10 years ago
The 2012 Presidential poll is worse than a sack-cum-three legged race between the candidate of an Utterly Policyless Alliance competing with another from a Not able to Decide Alliance both named at the very last stage just because both had no clues or other choices.
Other than the earliest ones all the other occupants of the Rasthrapati Bhavan did not deserve to be there in the first place - one going to the extent of saying that he was prepared to sweep the floor. The present incumbent took the whole jing bang of her extended family on world tour junkets just to fill the empty plane seats and thought she could get away with blue murder by usurping a reserved Army A1 piece of land till RTI did her it and force her to abort before take off.
Do hope Pranobda turns out to be better after walking every morning on the RB lawns!
10 years ago
When 1.2 billion Indians can not have an Indian as the chairman of the ruling alliance, India is doomed to fail.
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