All Eyes on President Murmu in Rashtrapati Bhawan
Opposition bickering takes it off the page
Presidents of India have come from the field of letters, law, science, culture and of course direct politics representing the political party in power. And used often to send out a signal that the ruling parties hope will stand in good stead, such as candidates from the minorities or the marginalised sections. Muslims have had a fair representation in Rashtrapati Bhawan with Zakir Husain and Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed and the Dalits too got their first President in scholarly KR Narayanan. And now it is the turn of the tribals with President Draupadi Murmu in place, having won the presidential elections with former BJP Minister and political leader Yashwant Sinha being defeated as the Opposition candidate.
The Bharatiya Janata Party effected a coup of sorts in Draupadi Murmu as its candidate for President. A woman - though of course not the first now– and a tribal Adivasi sent out the message that the BJP was looking at the marginalised tribals and was not hesitant to bring in a candidate who had walked the talk in more ways than one. Her story is genuine, as she reached for the skies despite deep poverty and acute grief having suffered the loss of her two sons, and her husband. She has come from a background of deprivation where hunger was part of daily life, and her gradual move up the political ladder to reach Rashtrapati Bhawan is intended – and is – a message for the Advisasis and the still very poor village she comes from.
The Opposition on the other never really got its act together. It could not agree on a candidate and fought and bickered even as the BJP quietly settled on Murmu without declared fuss. Finally, after various eminent citizens refused the Opposition's fractious offers, 84 year old die hard politician Yashwant Sinha accepted the offer and entered the fray. Even though he was bailing the Opposition out, he probably did expect that the various regional parties would unite behind him for at least a good fight. But that was not to be, with Mamata Banerjee's decision to abstain in the vote breaking the last straw on this camel's back. More so Sinha was with the Trinamool Congress and was well within his rights to have expected its support.
But then the broken Opposition has allowed the BJP a free ride, not just in the presidential polls but in most other issues. The task of coming together in itself is so momentous and such a challenge that even consultations are postponed till the last minute, allowing the BJP a headstart on almost each and every issue of import. Giant sized ego's have broken the bundle into individual sticks with the BJP retaining the capacity to crack these as it moves along. It is left to the individual party and leader to resist pressures —such as those generated by the use of agencies—instead of an united response that would be far more strong and effective.
Presidents in the office have ranged from those with a view and those who do the government bidding quietly. Some have been rather quiet and colourless, but many have brought their own stamp to the President's House. Not always for the good such as the highly political Zail Singh had converted Rashtrapati Bhawan into a grand palace of intrigue. It was never better for the media with many reporters allowed full access to his advisors and others. I remember devouring sumptuous chocolate cake and cookies fresh from the President's kitchen, as I listened to political gossip and of course political plants.
KR Narayanan brought in a quiet dignity, with the focus on the larger issues of the Constitution and the law. I was amongst the media entourage that accompanied him on a visit to France. We were a bit surprised when the first stop we made after landing was to the Airbus manufacturing unit - straight from the plane —which gave us a quick taste of commercial competitiveness. I stirred a controversy reporting how a leading local paper had headlined the President of India as an 'untouchable' with New Delhi taking it up in a big way, and the newspaper having to apologise. Even as those travelling with the President, including his key advisor, tried to cover this up, and insist that I had made a mountain of a molehill, President Narayanan told us on the aircraft that it was indeed a very unfortunate news report!
But these are asides, and all eyes are now on President Murmu. And what she will do and what she can do. She has been a member of the BJP for a while now, and was appointed the Governor of Jharkhand for a tenure that ended last year. She did politically demonstrate a soft spot for the tribal community she comes from,particularly during the Pathalgarhi agitation. She will bring dignity to the office, with her quiet composed bearing of course. But what if anything else remains to be seen as she is President under a strong executive, as was her predecessor, and her powers while defined in the Constitution of India also come with caveats of interpretation.