Business Standard asked in its ‘Have Your Say’ section today, “Is the media giving too much negative publicity to the current president?” In the light of the recent stories on President Pratibha Patil’s alleged land-grab (from ex-servicemen, no less), a whopping Rs. 205-crore expenditure on trips abroad with her family in tow (acquired after a lengthy RTI process), and the highlighting of previous allegations of nepotism, irregular financial activities (Pratibha Mahila Shahkari Bank, Sant Muktabai Sahakari Sakhar Karkhana, MPL Fund), and shielding her brother from the law (murder charges), the responses were, as expected, caustic, bitter, angry, and grammatically deficient.
Wrote one ‘Patilchhoddo,’ “She is sonia’s domestic servant and puppet.” Baljit Singh, who seemed to have trouble with the caps lock on his keyboard, chimed in with, “I THINK MEDIA IS RIGHT IN EXPOSING PRATIBHA WHO IS CONNGRESS WORKER AND WASTING COUNTRY HARD MONEY. SHE IS ALSO MOST CORRUPTED WOMAN.” Another respondent, Gauri, angrily complained, “First of all she is unfit for the position and she has kept upto her earlier sick reputation of greed. She has sunk a bank in her home town and now she is digging into the people’s funds with her expensive foreign trips. She has turned out to be a true politician to the core – A HIGHLY CORRUPT ONE. IT IS BEST SHE STEPS DOWN.” Hemraj Jethanandani, in a conversation with himself, said, “We must blame Congress Party for foisting this unworthy person as President of India. She has embarassed the country hemraj.”
Such criticism of President Patil is patently unfair. This indicative sampling of respondents assume that Patil should be competent, fair, have integrity, and possess gravitas, dignity, and decorum in a manner befitting the high office she was appointed to, meeting dignitaries from around the world and representing India in a manner that will keep the country’s head high. But Patil was not elected on these criteria at all – the Indian National Congress (INC) saw petty political gains in choosing a candidate to oust then sitting president APJ Kalam. The Indian media have moved the goal post after the selection and subsequent election of Patil to portray her negatively, perhaps to benefit their own news cycle or the mysterious TRP (Target Rating Point). And the Indian Left (as well as the Shiv Sena) is equally to blame, if not for the same reasons. If we look back to 2007 when Patil was elected president as per Articles 54 and 55 of the Indian constitution, India’s collective memory will be refreshed as to the considerations which worked in favour of the then Governor of Rajasthan to make her primus inter pares in the presidential election. What were these factors?
1. Pratibha Patil is pliant to Congress requirements
President Patil is nothing if not pliant to the Congress Party’s needs. She is a member of the Congress Party, having served on its ticket in the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly (Muktainagar, 1967-1985), Rajya Sabha (1985 – 1990), Lok Sabha (Amravati, 1991 – 1996), and was the Maharashtra Pradesh Congress Committee president from 1988 to 1990. The Congress expected the right presidential candidate to know what is expected of him/her and in this, Patil has not disappointed the Party. President Patil was a Congress functionary, and continues to be a Congress functionary; in this, the President has fully met the criterion.
2. Pratibha Patil is Maharashtrian
This is an issue over which the Shiv Sena broke rank with the BJP in 2007. In a sickening display of parochialism from the Shiv Sena, the BJP was not able to garner enough support to field their candidate, India’s missile man and incumbent APJ Kalam, for a second term in office. Eventually, the NDA fielded their second choice, Bhairon Singh Shekhawat. In a brilliant demonstration of ‘divide and rule’ politics by the Congress, the quality of ‘Maharashtrian’ness’ was placed at the centre of intra-NDA debate. President Patil was a Maharashtrian and is a Maharasthrian; in this too, the President has fully met the criterion.
3. Pratibha Patil is a woman
Upon the election of Pratibha Patil, Sonia Gandhi, head of the INC, hailed the appointment as a “historic day for Indian women.” INC functionaries told the media that the selection of Patil for the position was Sonia Gandhi’s “personal choice.” Said the Italian-born widow of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, “In the 60th year of our independence, for the first time we have a woman president.” Congress sycophants cheered their leader and her victory and even defended the newly-elected president from her critics: “The means to gain the end can be anything; the important point is, we are all witness to history,” said Renuka Chowdhury, minister for women and child development [author’s emphasis (and disbelief)]. The President was a woman at the time of election and still is; in this as well, the President has fully met the criterion.
“A bryd that retorneth agayn to his owene nest”
The qualities that favoured the elevation of Pratibha Patil to the highest post in the land were her subservience, ethnicity, and gender, and in that, she has not wavered by a hair’s breadth; merit, experience, and integrity hardly mattered. If these new criteria are raised now, after the damage (to India’s international image as well as to the exchequer) has been done, only one question remains to be asked: why in the living daylights were these questions not raised loudly and repeatedly five years ago? Democracy, or republicanism, for the technically minded, is a participatory affair, and for decades, Indians have chosen to vote once every five years (or sooner) and then recede into the background. Even when the 60% or so do vote, it is along caste, religious, or ethnic lines, and rarely if ever for competence. So why are they surprised now, when they have a president that fits their bill? similarly, now that Sachin Tendulkar has been nominated to the Rajya Sabha on the strength of his cricketing prowess, one should hardly expect profound expositions on how to fix the economy from him. As embarrassing as Patil has been as President of India, the fault lies not with her – she has always been as she is – and it is not the fault of Sonia Gandhi or the INC – for they are also as they have always been – but with the citizens of India who have, at every turn, assisted in creating a personality cult around their heroes, many a time undeservedly. If the presidency – and by extension, government and governance – is important to India, perhaps it should reflect in the voting record and the quality of debate in the public sphere, at least among the educated and urbane. Petty motives to fill high offices will only beget petty leaders. In President Patil’s case, Geoffrey Chaucer’s words from The Parson’s Tale come to mind: “And ofte tyme swich cursynge wrongfully retorneth agayn to hym that curseth, as a bryd that retorneth agayn to his owene nest.” Or, as the Americans say, the chickens have come home to roost.
A final thought to conclude with: all this criticism has been vocalised by the press now that President Patil will soon revert to Ms. Patil. Would the media have had the integrity to criticise her if the Congress had nominated her for re-election?