LT GENERAL BHOPINDER SINGH | 28 NOVEMBER, 2016
More To 'Presidential' Imperatives Than Muscularity
Donald Trump has regressed the sub-text of being ‘Presidential’ to narrow confines of misogynistic undertones of appearance and gender, when he seemingly teased the men in the audience with an audacious, “Does she look presidential, fellas”?
The not-so-subtle implication in the words and tone suggesting that the men in the audience would automatically comprehend his concern. Aspects of gender, looks and aesthetics were implied as the sole pre-requisite of Trump’s definition of ‘Presidential’. The social-contract mandated in the hallowed preamble to the US constitution ‘to form a more perfect union’ has held a certain characteristic of sobriety, inclusivity and dignity that has been maintained for over two centuries, from the Presidency of George Washington (1789-1797) to that of the outgoing President, Barrack Obama (2009 onwards).
Politically, George W Bush and Barrack Obama represented the exact opposite instincts and popular imaginations, yet the mandated transition from one Presidency to the other, was a textbook case of constitutional civility and grace afforded by one-on-the-other. Obama’s trademark courtesy was extended to his then, vanquished Republican opponent, Senator John McCain in 2009 – when, Obama made John McCain the guest of honour at a black tie dinner celebrating Obama’s inauguration, and more importantly valued and consulted John McCain’s input on nominations to the sensitive security positions and other issues. Obama even ensured that his running-mate in both his Presidential elections was Joe Biden, a one-time fellow Presidential contender from the Democratic Party. Later, he made his principal Democratic-aspirant for the Democratic nomination in 2008, Hillary Clinton, his Secretary of State.
A certain pacifism, dignity and accommodative spirit typified Obama as the generous victor in a graceful and consistent act of truly acting ‘Presidential’. Even with the successful campaign of extreme polarization accompanying Donald Trump’s recent victory, Obama has emerged as amongst the most popular Presidents ever (with the approval ratings at 56%, in the last leg of his term), owing to his trademark behavioural conduct – even as he overcame the initial sleights of his ‘muslim ancestry’ and the racist overtones of first ‘black’ President. Clearly, the benchmark and imperatives of being ‘Presidential’ in Barrack Obama’s dictionary were bed rocked on wisdom, humility and empathy – accompanied with a generosity of spirit and hope.
India too, has been fortunate to have had leadership exemplifying behavioural ‘Statesmanship’ across the political spectrum – from the erudition of Jawahar Lal Nehru, simplicity of Lal Bahadur Shastri, sobriety of Rajiv Gandhi, intellect of IK Gujral, eloquence of Atal Bihari Vajpayee to the dignity of Manmohan Singh, the nation has essentially retained its unique sense of inclusivity, constitutional propriety and liberality. The ingrained Gandhian DNA that values communal harmony, social integration and progressive emancipation has been the leitmotif of, most of the political leadership, irrespective of the political divide. The transition of the NDA government to the UPA government in 2004 was marked by inherent decency that came naturally to a true Gandhian Statesman like Atal Bihari Vajpayee as he passed the baton to another Gandhian (in thought, speech, mannerism and conduct) i.e. Manmohan Singh. But, as the much quoted verse of the latest Nobel Laureate for Literature, Bob Dylan goes, “Times, they are a changing…”
Assuming the constitutional chair, whether ‘Presidential’ or ‘Prime Ministerial’ necessitates the transition from a ‘campaign’ mode to a governance mode. Two aspects offer a sneak view of the potential flavor of the presidencies, firstly, the choice of advisors and key aides is absolutely critical, as that cushions the initial continuum of the pre-election campaign vitriol towards a more nuanced, inclusive and balanced policy making and executive decision making. Secondly the approach towards media, as liberal democracies warrant the free space and breathing ground for impartial ‘connect’ to act as an effective countercheck and voice of both the constituents and the executive – any semblance of coercion or drowning of contrarian views is extremely frightening in the long run.
On both these counts, Donald Trump is clear about where he stands when he apparently told media honchos after his successful nomination to the White House, “We’re in a room of liars, the deceitful, dishonest media who got it all wrong”. But in a more fundamental sense, the nation got a foreboding sense of the governance fabric with the appointments of Steve Bannon, Michael Flynn and Jeff Sessions – these ostensible “best people” have a track record of proximity and empathy with the white supremacists, are anti-minorities and have extremely polarizing track records. The construct of the ‘Presidential’ tenure is eerily poised to mirror the campaign populism, discrimination and radicalization.
The acid test of the ‘Presidential’ credentials in President Barrack Obama’s tenor was exemplified by his inspiring and hoary intonation of ‘the audacity of hope’, whereas the ‘Presidential’ cues in Donald Trump are visible in his book, “When people wrong you, go after those people, because it is a good feeling and because other people will see you doing it. I always get even”. Seemingly, in the new reality across the globe, radical ideas, fearmongering and belligerence are hot currency. The new-age leadership style is an ominous potion of unapologetic hubris, clumsy jingoism and self-aggrandizement (Donald Trump had once stated that he would be, “the greatest jobs president that Gods ever created”, while calling his critics and rivals ‘losers’ and ‘stupid’).
The ‘Presidential’ imperatives clearly go beyond sharp-suits, razzmatazz and theatrics. The wistful sensitivity and inclusivity that was implied in Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s ‘insaaniyat key dayere se’, typified the constitutional values and the healing touch that went beyond party positions and electoral considerations, a parallel analogy of the unmistakable, ‘Prime Ministerial’ imperatives, in a wounded country of diversities and opinions. Optics of derision, taunts and threats do not behoove the constitutional chair that ordains intellectual openness and tolerance towards contrarian views.
Perhaps the most subtle pre-requisite of the ‘Presidential’ debate was nailed by President Barrack Obama when he spoke at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Lima, about the supremacy of the ‘spirit’ of law over the letter of the law – when he spoke about how he converted his assets into Treasury Bills, to avoid any potential conflict of interest, during his presidency. Clearly, in participative democracies, optics matter. The ‘Presidential’ imperatives are a lot more profound than bravado and muscular posturing.
(Lt Gen Bhopinder Singh (Retd), is a forrmer Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands & Puducherry)