Given the arithmetic of the constituency that will elect the next President, Pranab Mukherjee is certain to win against his challenger, PA Sangma. This isn’t a general election, where the vicissitudes of voter sentiment will influence the outcome. The back-room deals that have been negotiated by the Congress to secure the support of many of its allies, and some parties from the Opposition, will almost certainly seal the deal for it.
To that extent, Pranab Mukherjee perhaps doesn’t feel the need to reach out to us, the lowly common folks, and make an appeal for why he would make a good President. He has confined himself to making discreet phone calls to leaders of allied part and the Opposition to secure their support.
Do "We, the People" count for anything at all?
The Congress party has even sneeringly rejected Sangma’s challenge to Mukherjee to an open debate Party spokesman Manish Tewari has said that since the office of the President wasn’t about managing the economy, “the suggestion for a debate is a non-sequitur and a non-starter”.
Going one step further, the Congress is persisting with its efforts to manufacture a consensus around Pranab Mukherjee’s candidature by hectoring the BJP for its decision to support Sangma.
But the Congress’ aversion to an open debate or engage us ordinary folks and to engineer a political consensus through its wheeling-dealing misses out on one of the core tenets of our polity: that the President is the defender of the Constitution, which in letter and in spirit is centred around “We, the People”.
The very office of the President, for all its pomp and ceremony that has come to characterise it, is a personification of the Indian citizen, putting him front and centre of the Constitutional scheme of things. And yet, as part of the election to that office, the Congress seems to suggest, there is no compelling need for a candidate to deal with the dirty, unwashed masses; he can ride in a horse-drawn ceremonial buggy (or a six-door sedan) to the Rashtrapati Bhavan in regal splendour.
It is an index of how far we have moved away from our Constitutional moorings.
But exactly why are Pranab-da and the Congress not keen on a public debate? After all, as argumentative Indians, we have a tradition of engaging in ceaseless debate and dialectics, as embodied in the Tarka Sastra.
And even though the office of the President will not require political or economic management skills in the way that Pranab-da’s most recent stint in the Finance Ministry did, an able defence of his record in various offices, in his long innings in politics, will offer sterling validation of the aspiration that, yes, we are electing the best man for the highest office of the land.
As Firstpost has argued earlier, Mukherjee’s record in office – right from his role during the Emergency down to the present day (where his colossal mismanagement of the Indian economy has become indefensible even for the Congress) – is fair game for scrutiny.
Of course, a debate such as this is almost always weighted in favour of the challenger and the underdog. To that extent, Mukherjee doesn’t have as much to gain – and perhaps more to lose – from a debate than Sangma.
But by appearing to run away from the challenge of a debate, Pranab-da may have already lost the larger debate over the accountability of leaders. The subliminal message that he is sending out is: “‘Why must I subject myself to scrutiny by you lowly mortals when I can take the high road to high office?”
And the Congress’ airy dismissal of even the suggestion of a debate perhaps offers a peep into the mindset of our leaders, and particularly what they really think of “We, the People.”
By Venky Vembu, First Post, June 22, 2012