It would seem that two of the world’s biggest democracies, India and the United States of America, are destined to be led by Ladies. There are, however, certain differences. While Mrs. Hillary Clinton’s carefully premeditated and concerted efforts ‘to seize power’ have been underway atleast since the time her husband left the White House after eight eventful years (if not before, as a recent biography by Mr. Carl Bernstein would have us believe), her likely Indian counterpart, Mrs. Pratibha Patil, the incumbent Governor of Rajasthan, was caught blissfully unawares, holidaying in her gubernatorial summer retreat at the picturesque colonial hill resort of Mount Abu, just days before her name was officially announced as the UPA candidate by its leader (also, another Lady), Mrs. Sonia Gandhi. Also, unlike Mrs. Clinton, Mrs. Patil has very little national, let alone international, exposure: apart from a brief stint as Deputy Chairperson of the Council of States (Rajya Sabha), her political career was confined to Maharashtra, where she had the distinction of having uninterruptedly served in the state assembly for a quarter of a century.
My own recollection of Mrs. Patil is that of a down-to-earth person. When my father was convalescing at the Bombay Hospital after his injury in the summer of 2004, she made it a point to visit us as often as she could. “Khana kahan khaté ho, béta?” (where do you eat, son?) she inquired. I told her that the canteen downstairs served an excellent Gujarati thali at a fairly reasonable rate. She smiled sympathetically. On the very next day, a Tiffin of delicious home-cooked food arrived at lunchtime.
To me, this particular incident speaks volumes of the kind of person who would soon be sworn-in to ‘Defend the Constitution of India’ really is, especially at a time when its three principal institutions- the legislature, judiciary and the executive- are virtually at war with each other, frequently stepping on each other’s toes. Her refusal to sign an anti-conversion bill, passed by the Rajasthan legislature last year, shows her unquestionable- or as the Left said, ‘steadfast’- commitment to defend the Secular Ideal- the freedom extended to every citizen to freely practice and preach the religion of his or her choice by the nation’s Constitution- even at the cost of annoying her own government and its chief minister, Ms. Vasundhara Rajé Scindia, with whom she reportedly enjoys an excellent rapport. For those in doubt about her ability to do the correct thing under extenuating circumstances, this incontrovertible illustration is an assurance that the lady is made of sterner stuff.
THREE IN ONE
What then are Mrs. Patil’s chances at the Presidency? A BJP leader, ‘on condition of anonymity’, told the press that the UPA’s propping of a ‘weak woman candidate’ as opposed to a ‘heavyweight’ like the home minister, Mr. Shivraj Patil, is a tacit acceptance of defeat. Most political commentators in Delhi (where this blogger is presently stationed), however, feel otherwise. There is a widespread belief that her election is, more or less, a fiat accompli. This is principally due to three factors.
First, the fact that she is positioned to take over as India’s First Lady President makes it difficult for political parties- not only the perpetually hard-to-please Left (note their resistance to Mrs. Gandhi’s first choice, Mr. Shivraj Patil) but also those who might have been tempted to support the rival NDA candidate- to oppose her candidature.
Secondly, the fact of her being a Maharashtrian makes it near-impossible for the UPA’s ‘weakest link’, the NCP leader, Mr. Sharad Pawar, to do a last-minute volte face (about-turn)- something he has done on atleast three previous occasions (the Maharasthtra Assembly elections, Mumbai Mayor elections and the Rajya Sabha elections)- and back his old friend, the incumbent Vice President, Mr. Bhairon Singh Shekhawat. Indeed he may do so now only at his own peril: the charge of wounding ‘Maratha Pride’ by stifling a Maharasthrian lady’s chances of being elected to the nation’s highest office would most certainly be fatal to the politics of the Maratha strongman, even if that lady’s politics has largely been defined by her opposition to the latter. To put it differently, it is a pill Mr. Pawar would do good to swallow, whether he likes it or not.
Last but not the least, the fact of her being the bahu (daughter-in-law) of the Shekhawati- Rajput clan has no doubt put her rival, Vice President Shekhawat, in a political, if not moral, dilemma: as the doyen of this clan, Mr. Shekhawat would find it extremely difficult to justify his contesting against the clan’s bahu. This is especially so given the 53:47 ratio of the electoral college in UPA’s favor: in light of this, Mr. Shekhawat’s winning this election has to be necessarily dependent on the NDA’s combined ability to engineer cross-voting in favor of their candidate, something that is not only unethical but also, unlawful under the present Anti-Defection Act. Here, it is worth mentioning that the Team NDA’s presidential strategy largely comprised of ‘targeting’ Rajput votes within the UPA (to this end, a List of all Rajput electors has already been compiled). With Mrs. Patil’s nomination, who is also a Rajput, this has become all the more difficult.
In a nation where politics is predominantly determined by the power of symbolisms (remember Churchill’s ‘half-clad naked fakeer’- Gandhi), the declaration of Mrs. Patil’s candidature last evening is seen as nothing short of ‘a political masterstroke’: her triple-identification- as a lady, a Maratha and a Rajput- has in one masterly move, resolved all outstanding issues with the Left and the NCP, and put paid to the NDA’s aspirations of sneaking their man into Rashtrapati Bhavan. The ultimate credit for this, ofcourse, belongs to Mrs. Sonia Gandhi. More than anything else, this decision shows her astute understanding, and total mastery, of coalitional politics. After the debacle at UP, this is perhaps just what the Congress- and the Country- needed.
Yet Mrs. Patil’s candidature also raises an important, if somewhat disturbing, question: should the Presidency of India really be about the curriculum vitae of the person- his or her stature, character, personal achievement, service record- who aspires to that office; or is it about the various politically expedient ‘symbolisms’ associated with that person’s elevation? Put differently, is Mrs. Patil our likely President because of who she is- and what she has done- as a person, or because of the various identities she evokes- of a woman, a Maratha and a Rajput? I believe it has to do with a bit of both. Frankly, I don’t see anything wrong with that. To paraphrase Henry Kissinger’s comment on Nelson Rockefeller, another presidential aspirant, “in high public office, it doesn’t matter how a person gets there but what he (or she) did after they got there.”
It is true that Mrs. Patil has found her way into our history books, largely because of what the British novelist, Somerset Maugham labeled ‘the force of circumstance’; how History will remember her, however, will depend entirely on how she discharges ‘the burden and the glory’ of the highest political office of the nation.
Saturday, June 16, 2007