Integrated development, politics and social empowerment in India and beyond

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Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

Fortunately she will have the advantage of a wise and highly regarded Vice-President in Mr Hamid Ansari who will probably be called upon to play a rather more active role.

Making a New Start

The President represents the nation’s conscience. The work is “political” though not partisan. Poll over, this is a new beginning.

By B G Verghese

Sahara Times, 23 July, 2007

With the presidential poll behind us, it is time to move forward and make a new start. The ugliness of the election campaign needs to be forgotten.  Dr Abdul Kalam has departed in simple dignity, carrying with him much popular affection while President Pratibha Patil hopefully comes to Rashtrapati Bhavan with the good wishes of the entire nation. She represents an institution and not a person, though the two cannot be totally separated.

Nor will it do to start making comparisons. Every President brings something new and different to the office. Mrs Patil has long been a public figure even if not much in the public eye. Her background and experience should stand her in good stead and her gender will undoubtedly add a certain symbolism to the great office she holds. As Information Adviser to Indira Gandhi, it did not take me long to notice the special rapport she was able to establish with ordinary, shy, illiterate women who felt empowered because of one of their own had taken office. And the Prime Minister could in turn talk to them in a manner that those preceding and following her could not.

We will possibly see something similar with Mrs Patil. Dr Kalam made Rashtrapati Bhavan a seminar hall, laboratory, children’s art gallery, website and botanical garden. Mrs Patil will make it more homely and a place where those interested in social welfare may find a special welcome. She will otherwise carve out her own niche in her exchanges and travels and will have access to all the expertise and technical advice she may need in dealing with affairs of state. 

Fortunately she will have the advantage of a wise and highly regarded Vice-President in Mr Hamid Ansari who will probably be called upon to play a rather more active role in dealing with diplomatic-security oriented issues of state in view of his own special qualifications in this regard. Altogether, this should make a happy combination that could serve the country well.

Much has been said about the qualifications for holding both offices. The notion that the President should be “non-political” and the Vice-President “political”, as the Left would have it, is utterly hollow. Both offices are clearly political though not in the sense of low partisan cunning that too many invest in the term, possibly reflecting their own limited vision and practice. The Vice-President chairs the Rajya Sabha, a challenging task when “elders” all too often behave as errant schoolboys. But anybody who has served in the United Nations General Assembly and been a Vice-Chancellor, like Mr Ansari, must have some savvy.

The President represents the nation’s conscience, able to see and hear all sides with empathy and understanding but without a stern integrity that is able to rise above personal and partisan predilections. Those who say that President’s are chosen for their “loyalty” or “pliability” do little justice to the office, which often moulds its occupant, and to the democratic ideal they claim to uphold. Once in office, Mrs Patil can be expected to follow her instincts and do the right thing by her oath and the nation.  

There is also a totally false notion abroad regarding what constitutes “strength” with reference to the holder of a high office. Many who write off Dr Manmohan Singh as a “weak” Prime Minister are way off the mark. Bluster, strong language and arrogance do not signify strength; rather an inner weakness. Coalition politics requires accommodation and resilience and sometimes having said that , it I lamentable that timeservers and yes-men regrettably fill many offices, such as that of Governors and heads and members of important boards and agencies. The manner in which part time directors of a public sector bank were filled, that recently came to public notice, represent a derogation from standards of good governance.

It is unfortunate that all parties, ruling and opposition, have come to give exaggerated importance to remaining in office or embarrassing the government on issues of no great relevance instead of focussing on good governance and constructive criticism which is the ultimate test by which they will be judged by the electorate. So treating every intervening event, policy and election as an immediate run up to the 2009 general election is to debase politics.

Both major formations, Congress and NDA, especially the latter, have come out poorly from the presidential poll. The so-called Third Front has shown its irrelevance, bereft of any principle or platform. The Shiv Sena has once again exhibited its parochialism, which can win it no marks. With the autumn session of Parliament opening soon, the BJP will have to decide whether it wants to shrink its national role and opportunity by nailing a revived and divisive Hindutva to its mast or to reinvent itself as a modern and constructive national alternative. The Left too must shed infantilism and hypocritical humbug if it is to be taken seriously. 

There is much serious work ahead: maintaining the thrust of reform and inclusive growth; moving forward with the peace process in J&K and the Northeast (while keeping a wary eye on developments in Pakistan and Bangladesh); putting the seal on the path-breaking Indo-US nuclear deal if the text of the latest Washington agreement truly matches the term “done deal” used by responsible insiders.

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