Political controversies before and during the presidential elections are nothing new. We have seen them before. They are part of the democratic process,
I still remember the debate and unhappiness triggered among large sections of the admirers of Rajaji, particularly in the then undivided Madras state, over the perceived reluctance of Jawaharlal Nehru, the then Prime Minister, to support the nomination of Rajaji, the then Governor-General, for election as the first President of the Republic of India after the promulgation of the Constitution.
The new generation of Dravidian leaders then coming up perceived the easing out of Rajaji as reflecting the basic prejudice of north Indian leaders against those from the south. This added to their determination to fight for a Dravidian political movement with Dravidian objectives.
Even though we felt unhappy over the easing out of Rajaji, we did not make a drama out of it. We accepted it in our stride and maintained our sense of political balance. It did not affect our admiration for Nehru. [Also See: Samanth Subramanian in NYT yesterday: Politicking Began With India’s Very First President which details the role played by Sardar Patel and Rajendra Prasad in ensuring that Rajaji was not made President]
We faced another controversy during the Presidential elections of 1969 when Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister and V.V. Giri supported by her and her followers in the Congress Party defeated N. Sanjiva Reddy, the official candidate of the Party. The controversy was the outcome of her feelings of humiliation over her views as to who should be the party nominee not being given importance by the Party leadership, then known as the Syndicate.
Indira Gandhi saw the nomination of Sanjiva Reddy as the candidate by the Party leadership overriding her objections, as Prime Minister, to him as an ill-concealed attempt by the Syndicate to restrict her powers and manoeuvrability as the PM and to use Sanjiva Reddy to keep her under control.
She revolted against this with the support of a new generation of Congress leaders and ultimately prevailed. Giri was elected and the designs of the Syndicate to keep her under check failed. Those of us like me, who had just then joined the corridors of power in Delhi, still remember the heat and drama that accompanied the election.
The drama of 1969 took place at a time of a major crisis inside the Congress Party, but not in the nation. There was no major crisis of governance. The economy was doing badly, but not too badly. The credibility of the Prime Minister was good. The success of Giri supported by her added to her credibility and political self-confidence and set in motion a process of psychological upswing that led to her triumphs of 1971.
The tussle for power and influence between her and the Syndicate in the Party was dramatic and kept the attention of the nation gripped, but there was nothing petty about it. Regional leaders outside the Congress fold did not play much of a role in the drama. It was essentially an in-house drama in the Congress from which she emerged triumphant.
The 1969 events were thus largely an inner party drama which did not have much of a damaging impact on the nation. The unedifying drama that we are witnessing presently over the forthcoming Presidential elections marks a total collapse of leadership in the union cabinet as well as in the Congress party. It is not an inner party drama.
It is a national drama taking place at a time when governance is in a shambles, when the credibility of the Prime Minister, never high in the past, has reached its nadir, when the Prime Minister as a political and constitutional entity has virtually ceased to exist and when the economy is on the downslide.
The drama of 1969 was the result of the assertion by the Prime Minister of her right to have a say as to who should be the candidate of the party in the Presidential elections. Nothing illustrates more ominously the extent of the collapse of the image and the authority of Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh than the fact that he seems to be playing no role in the current drama. His views just don’t count either in the Party or in the Government or in the nation.
Over the last one year, one had seen the inexorable withering away of the credibility and the authority of the Prime Minister. We are now witnessing the process of the withering away of the image and influence of Mrs Sonia Gandhi too as the President of the Congress. The maladroit manner in which she has handled the important prelude to the Presidential elections would bring no credit to her or her party.
The Congress Party, under her leadership, has totally failed to foresee and appreciate the importance and the likely complexities of the forthcoming Presidential elections which would be taking place at a time of national crisis of worrisome proportions.
As the leader of the largest single political formation, one would have expected her to intelligently and imaginatively steer and control the pre-Presidential political process, keeping the control in her hands all the time while accommodating the wishes and sensitivities of the coalition partners of her party. She has badly failed to do so.
As a result, the Presidential poll process is in a roller coaster ride. If this is not arrested, there is a danger of this roller coaster ride affecting the governance too. One ought to blame two political leaders for this roller coaster. Mrs Sonia Gandhi for her inept handling of the pre-Presidential process and Ms Mamata Banerjee for the way she has allowed her unfortunate and unsatiated ego to vitiate the entire process.
Now is the time for all well-wishers of the nation to re-introduce an element of sanity and sobriety into the process. Dr Abdul Kalam, the much revered former President and ethical role model, and Shri Mulayam Singh Yadav, one of the most intelligent political leaders we have, should decline to let themselves be further used by Ms Mamata Banerjee in her divisive political games. The search for a consensus candidate and for an honourable end to the Presidential poll process has to be pursued vigorously.
The immediate objective is to arrest this vitiation and to bring the Presidential poll process to an honourable culmination. Thereafter, it is important for the Congress to initiate an exercise for bidding a dignified farewell to Dr. Manmohan Singh as the Prime Minister, to democratise the functioning of the Congress Party so that its fortunes are not damaged further by a maladroit leadership and to go for premature elections even at the risk of losing them. The nation and its economy cannot afford to continue any longer with the present sleep-walking of Dr Manmohan Singh and his Cabinet.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate, Chennai Centre For China Studies.