It’s an unusual election for President of the Republic that is underway. The ruling party’s candidate, Droupadi Murmu, is a shoo-in, given the overwhelming numbers the ruling party can muster along with its allies, including many non-BJP parties which technically still count as “the Opposition”, although that description is politically misleading.
Presidential polls are usually keenly fought for political or ideological reasons. Perhaps the most telling example is from the Congress’ 1969 split, with Indira Gandhi forcing the momentum against the party’s conservatives. Her faction set up V.V. Giri, a well-known labour leader, against the official party nominee Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy. She called for a “conscience vote”, and prevailed.
There were other noteworthy cases. Sure losers, whose public persona was distant from day-to-day politics, were set up against ruling party nominees. Rukmini Devi Arundale, a stalwart from the world of dance, and (Captain) Lakshmi Sehgal of the Azad Hind Fauj come to mind.
It’s important to ask if the coming election is of a similar mould? Are we in a context where it should be business as usual? Should the standard template apply? For the spirit of democracy to remain aloft, and to not let the BJP-RSS nominee go unchallenged, must Opposition parties go through with their choice of Yashwant Sinha, who with his selfless espousal of multiple struggles against an unyielding, unfeeling authority, has shone in recent years?
Two different sets of reasons call for caution in pursuing Mr Sinha’s nomination to its logical conclusion. Neither has to do with surface ideology or immediate politics, and the first appears more compelling of the two -- namely, will the spirit of democracy be best served if the Opposition parties fielding Mr Sinha challenge the (near certain) election of a public figure from among the tribes of India -- without doubt the most disregarded and suffering section of our people -- and a woman?
If someone from such a background is elevated to the presidency, will it be such a bad thing when we consider India’s diversity, and decide to make a difficult political choice at a fraught moment in national life?
Such a course, if taken, will embed in the political DNA the endorsement of the idea of building viable links with the most suffering sections of our citizens as well as gender empowerment. The BJP, not noted for affinity to the poorest sections or for that matter subtlety, might have cynically advanced the candidature of a woman candidate from a poor tribal group for reasons of tokenism alone, and to shame opponents.
Even in this context, what should concern those battling for preservation of basic democratic values against a series of the ruling party’s recent egregious actions -- embedding of religious discrimination and discord, demolishing homes of religious minorities, hounding of human rights defenders and others who question government actions, and of late the open harassment, bordering on attacks, on Opposition leaders, notably Sonia and Rahul Gandhi in the National Herald case, is the principle of remaining indubitably aligned with the hopes and ambitions of the poor -- in this case tribal people.
What’s important is the spirit of the thing. Think back of the time when Morarji Desai was made Prime Minister of the post-Emergency Janata Party experiment. Probably under the influence of the business lobby, the conservative former Congressman was given precedence over the claims of Jagjivan Ram, whose name had emerged through inner-party consultations guided by Jayaprakash Narayan. Jagjivan Ram was a stalwart. He also happened to be from the Scheduled Castes, who are at the bottom of the ladder in the Hindu social universe and have suffered oppression of every kind from the earliest days of the formation of Hindu society. The fact that Jagjivan Ram was overlooked bred political as well as social resentments, and it is entirely conceivable that the Janata Party experiment may not have scattered in confusion, division, and despair, if a representative of the poorest castes was elevated to Prime Minister.
Even as far as tokenism goes, if we look around, can we say in all honesty that electing a black President in Barack Obama -- who did not bring about any radical transformations -- was a mistake? In fact, the opposite seems the case. The United States ended up showing that, for all the deep-seated racism in its society, it can elect a black man as President. The Republicans, who opposed Mr Obama for ideological, racial and political reasons, ended up looking low, narrow-minded and concerned only with preserving status quoist white privilege.
It would be a shame if something like that came to be attached to the Opposition parties and its important leaders, especially since the main Opposition party, the Congress, has brought about far-reaching reforms of a humanist nature in our society, and the other parties too have contributed significantly to the growth of the republican spirit and the uplifting of the needy classes.
Droupadi Murmu is doubtless linked to the Hindutva ideology, and yet her victory would mark the arrival at Rashtrapati Bhavan of a tribal woman risen from modest beginnings. That is a huge social moment, besides a political one. Is it not possible that her candidature can be endorsed without diluting the political fight against the ruling party and the ideological struggle against Hindutva? This is a question that should engage us now.
The second question before us is the nature of the present Opposition.
Does it seriously exist? Can it mount a concerted effort against the Narendra Modi government on an agenda of significance? The evidence so far does not offer grounds for optimism.
In an earlier era, when the Congress was everywhere -- at the Centre and in the states -- all parties in Parliament not aligned to the ruling party were at most moments a single Opposition block. The CPI(M) alone held state governments. In contrast, several parties sitting on the Opposition benches in Parliament now are in fact running state governments.
The meetings of the Opposition parties to locate a candidate to challenge the nominee of the governing party and its friends have been a lacklustre affair, lacking in a serious appreciation of what is at stake. The current nominee was found after three earlier choices had declined. It did appear that the Opposition parties were merely going through the motions of mounting a challenge to the ruling party. Their own larger cause was guided by the greed of being regarded as the most important party of the Opposition. A rethink is called for on challenging the ruling party’s choice for President.