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Mainstream, VOL XLV, No 32

Lessons of Presidential Poll

Sunday 29 July 2007, by Nikhil Chakravartty


The excitement over the Presidential poll having ended with Giani Zail Singh winning it—though the official results are yet to be known when these lines are written—it is perhaps time for a sober appraisal of its political fall-out.

Leaving aside the personal antics of the President-designate—who has already earned the distinction of being extraordinarily folksy—the implications of this contest need to be noted as these are important for an understanding of how Indira Gandhi and her opponents view the lines of future development in this country.

By selecting Giani Zail Singh as the President for the coming five years, it is obvious Indira Gandhi is anxious not to be hamstrung by any advice or reservation from the Rashtrapati Bhavan on the policies to be projected or decisions taken by the government in the next five years, a period which by all accounts is going to be very critical. There is a demonstration of shock in some quarters over the Prime Minister’s choice of a rubber-stamp President. What is forgotten is that under the parliamentary system, every Prime Minister would like to have a rubber-stamp President: the problem arises when he or she does not get one, or a person looking like a rubber-stamp at the beginning might turn into a dissident, if not a veritable veto. Preoccupied with a sense of concern about the shape of things to come—unknown and inscru-table despite all the assurances of the asrologers—it is understandable why Indira Gandhi’s choice fell, of all people, on Giani Zail Singh whose loyalty to her is legendary.

Precisely for that very reason, the brunt of the Opposition attack was directed against her choice. The significant sections of the Opposition are mainly composed of the most conservative element in the body politic: behind their campaign to curb the Prime Minister in any move towards absolutism, lies their anxiety to hold on to the status quo in the socio-economic sphere, an objective which can be safeguarded by holding on to what is described by them as the basic structure of the Constitution; that is, the supremacy of a largely conservative judiciary over both Parliament and the executive. Without in the least downgrading the personal eminence of Justice Khanna, there is no gainsaying the fact that his honest views on matters political, social and judicial, tally by and large with those of the Lok Dal and BJP who with a section of Janata Party certainly constitute the decisive core of the Opposition combine. In other words, the perception of this section of the Opposition about the future line of developments in India enjoins upon them to be alert and vigilant against any disturbance of the status quo, for it is only as the defender of the status quo that they can thrive in the socio-political milieu in the country.

Such an assessment of the present balance of forces in India may not be to the liking of the Communist establishments—at least there is nothing on record to show that they concede such an assessment. But the hard reality, inexorable and inescapable, is that the Communists are gripped by the mentality of a state of siege, withdrawing to their own strongholds in West Bengal and Kerala with a few extra pockets here and there in the vast subcontinent, unable in any way to influence the course of events, not to speak of reversing it. On the other hand, the Right Opposition, represented by the BJP in particular, is actively trying to gain respectability in circles and segments of opinion which are far beyond its own flock; in other words, the forces of the Right are trying hard to come out of their own strongholds, to conquer the vast pastures beyond their own battlements.

This explains the sophisticated approach of a Vajpayee, claiming to be taking a wide national view of things, instead of any narrow sectarian one. Hence comes the ready acceptance by the BJP of CPI leader Hiren Mukerji as the Opposition’s choice for the Presidential contest—a dramatic gesture of magnanimity by which many beyond the pale of the BJP could be won over. It would be a very serious error for the Communists to interpret the selection of Hiren Mukerji as an acknowledgement on the part of the Right Opposition of the growing strength of the CPI; rather, it was a brilliant tactical move of the Right by which not only the gulf between Communists and Congress-I could be widened—let the two adversaries of the Right fall apart—but the BJP could gain kudos from the vast unorganised and unattached sections of what may be called the nationally oriented masses, who could be impressed by the abjuration of a sectarian outlook and might be persuaded to regard it as a reliable custodian of national interest.

This well-thought-out tactical move of the Right should lead to rethinking on the part of the Communists about the validity of their own immediate slogan of Left-and-Democratic Unity: perhaps unexceptionable as a perspective in a period of fierce class battles bordering on civil-war conditions, the slogan of Left-and-Democratic Unity today can hardly fetch rich dividends but may lead to the grotesque situation in which the flock of Charan Singh and the ramshackle battalions of the Janata, if not the serried ranks of the BJP, are preferred as democratic allies rather than the millions under the spell of Indira Gandhi. It is necessary for the Left to do a bit of self-introspection and consider if it would not be appropriate at the present moment to raise the call for a patriotic front in defence and furtherance of national interests.

There is another aspect of the Presidential poll campaign whose significance can hardly be overlooked by any careful observer of the Indian scene. Despite the dissensions prevailing inside the Congress-I State units, it is noteworthy that the party candidate could muster the support of the major regional parties—the National Conference of Jammu & Kashmir, the Akalis in Punjab, the DMK and AI-ADMK in Tamil Nadu. At a time when regional consciousness is on the ascendancy, it is important to note that these three prominent regional entities—in which separatist tendencies could be discerned at some time or other—have voted this time for an unmistakable assertion of national integration.

Here is a case of interplay of dialectically contradictory forces. It would be a mistake for the Congress-I leadership to jump to the simplistic conclusion that the Presidential poll is a vote for a unitary approach and a vote against regionalism. Rather, it denotes that while regional loyalties are asserting themselves, the need for an integrated India has not in the least been undermined.

Here is a challenge that the national leadership— as also those aspiring to national leadership—can hardly ignore.

(Mainstream, July 17, 1982)

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