The Congress President Sonia Gandhi has been authorized by her party to name the candidates for the offices of President and Vice President. The President is the highest constitutional office. The story of this constitutional office – how this high office fell from its high pedestal, touched a low, then recovered and then again fell into indignity – needs to be recalled in the context of its current low and the ensuing election to the high office. Most respected leaders like Dr Rajendra Prasad, Dr S Radhakrishnan and Dr Zakir Hussain were Presidents from 1950 till 1969 and they added great dignity to the office. But the incumbents between late 1960s and late 1980s were not even their pale version and they brought indignity to the office. Later it recovered before falling into the depth of indignity again in 2007.
In 1969, the election to the high office was caught in the nasty split in the Congress party. It demeaned election itself and corrupted the high office. The then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who had first signed the nomination papers of Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy, the official Congress candidate, betrayed him and her party, U-turned to support the opposition candidate VV Giri, used all the state power at her command and got Reddy defeated and Giri elected. This made VV Giri first, and Fakruddin Ali Ahmed later, mere attaches of the ruling party. Giri, who was repeatedly on cartoons as a signing machine, put his signatures on all papers that Indira Gandhi sent thro' courier. Fakruddin Ali Ahmed was rudely woken up at midnight on June 25, 1975 and asked to sign the emergency proclamation which he faithfully did. Its effect was telling in six hour, with Newspapers without news and the entire opposition in jail. After these two men, Sanjeeva Reddy became the President under the Janata Party, and he hardly improved the situation. It was back to Giri-Ahmed days in 1982 when Giani Zail Singh, again a ruling party attaché, became President. Towards the end of his term, on coming to know that Rajiv Gandhi would not repeat him for a second term, he revolted and even plotted to dismiss Rajiv who had 4/5 majority in Parliament! This showed the spirit of revenge of a small man occupying a high office, not his independence as President of India.
Later, the election of R Venkatraman and his successor SD Sharma again raised the stature of the office. Their successor, KR Narayanan, largely did a holding operation. Finally, Dr Abdul Kalam, dismissed as a political novice when he was chosen for the high office, restored its high dignity. His choice was particularly significant. He never even knew that he had been chosen by the NDA as its candidate for the office. The then Prime Minister AB Vajpayee had to ask the Intelligence Bureau to trace out where Dr Kalam was – and he was addressing Plus-2 students in a town in distant South – to inform him over phone that he had been chosen as the NDA candidate for Presidency! Tall men do not apply for positions. A Rajendra Prasad had to be persuaded to become the President. A Rajaji had to be requested to become the Chief Minister. Some of them have even rejected high offices. A Jayaprakash Narayan refused Pundit Nehru's offer to him to be the Deputy Prime Minister. Yet, it is only tall men in high office make the offices respectable. High offices held by small men trivialises the offices. Small men are just tolerated, rarely respected, as high functionaries.
But with the election of Mrs Pratibha Devi Sigh Patil as President in 2007, the dignity of the highest constitutional office has been discounted to a new low. On what basis was she chosen for the high office? That best kept secret became public through an inadvertent disclosure by a Rajasthan Minister. He told the Congress workers that Pratibha Patil, who was the governor of Rajasthan, was made the President for her loyalty to Indira Gandhi family and “she used to make tea, cook food, and clean utensils” for the Gandhi family. He also told the congress workers that 'he was only giving an example of what being loyal and dedicated to the family could bring'. The poor man lost his job for saying this truth in public. Much earlier Pratibha Patil, on her election, first expressed her gratefulness to Sonia! Yet, the excuse for her choice was that she would be the first woman to become the President. Was there no better women? There were. But they didn't cook for the Gandhis. So in 2007 to mean that the Rashtrapathi Bhavan became extension of the Gandhi kitchen. The office of the President stands irretrievably demeaned now.
Now the election of the new President is approaching. A right choice will regain lost dignity of the office. Like the choice of SD Sharma, R Venkatraman and Abdul Kalam lifted the dignity of the high office from its low. But with Sonia again given the right to choose the candidate, a Pratibha Patil-sort of candidate is more likely than a Kalam-type. The names of Pranab Mukherjee, Meira Kumar, Sangma Ansari are doing the rounds. Pranabda has openly expressed his desire to walk on the lawns of the Rashtrapathi Bhavan. His desire is understandable for three reasons. One, he is fatigued with his job, being the most over-worked minister in the UPA cabinet, heading most of the Groups of Ministers. Two, he knows that his career promotion from Number Two to Number One in the government is sealed as Sonia Gandhi would never allow him to become PM. Three, now is the least opportune time to be finance minister, with the national economy threatening to repeat 1991 after two decades of reform. With Rupee crash bankrupting the country, Pranabda probably wants to retire in Rashtrapathi Bhavan and walk in the lawns. But, will Sonia allow allow him that luxury? God knows. Sangma has apologised to her for telling that truth that she is a foreigner. Still, would she excuse him? God knows. Is she for Meira Kumar? God knows. Who else is she looking for? Another cook? God knows.
Tail piece: Recently, a cartoon of an advertisement inviting application for President's job appeared in the famous 'Tughlak' magazine edited by Cho Ramaswamy. It read: “A rare employment opportunity for the aged. Position: President of India; Age: above 35 [over 80 preferred]; Job: speak words of solace to people on Republic Day; keep the mercy petitions of murderers and other pending infinitely; travel on plane to different countries with family. Salary: Rs 1.5 lakh per month”.