A statesman, now, for Rashtrapati Bhavan

Every five years for the past decade or two, there is one name that crops up in my part of the world for President of India: that of Dr B K Goyal, eminent cardiologist and a face that was often on Doordarshan in the decade of the 1980s, in the era when President Zail Singh and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi used to come calling on people like the Frontier Gandhi (Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan) at the Bombay Hospital, where Dr Goyal is still a consultant.

This year, too, friends of Dr Goyal have run a campaign for him but, as usual, I believe they have come in rather late in the day. As one of them, Dr Ashish Tiwari, who runs his own health care services in Bombay, told me a few days ago, “There has been no doctor who has been made President as yet.”

But, I believe, that does not automatically qualify this winner of the Padma Shree, Padma Bhushan and Padma Vibhushan for that office. I tried to gently tell Dr Goyal’s friends that a campaign of this nature must begin at least two years in advance of the presidential elections. Then, again, it should be accompanied by the kind of hard lobbying that gentlemen like Dr Goyal and his equally gentlemanly friends might be incapable of undertaking – this is a dirty game and it is a rare individual outside of politics who might want to get his hands soiled and his or her honour sullied.

However, while the good doctor, indeed, has impeccable credentials, I wonder if those are enough to get him into Rashtrapati Bhavan. There are so many other equally eminent names being floated around – Waheeda Rehman, Amitabh Bachchan, Narayan Murthy, Rahul Bajaj, et al. And they will all similarly be `firsts’ in their respective career fields. While all of them are accomplished individuals, I do not think (and I might be in a minority of one here) that I want to see corporates or others not versed in the Constitution as politicians might be and, never mind the convenience of legal advisors in that office, be vulnerable to political manipulation because of vested interests presiding at Rashtrapati Bhavan for the next five years.

Of course, Dr S Radhakrishnan had no political credentials to his name and he was among the exceptions who made a good `non-political’ president. But, if I might say so, those were, in a way, non-political times with the likes of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru presiding over government and other people in politics, whether in the Congress or other political parties, who had commitment to the Constitution and the country and could be expected not to deviate from the path to good governance and even better leadership.

While names like Soli Sorabjee and Fali Nariman cannot be faulted by reason of law, probity, integrity and rectitude, a great lawyer still does not always make a good politician – though I have not lost sight of the fact that most of our early political leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru, Sardar Patel, et al – were eminent lawyers before they jumped into the freedom movement and dove the British away from India.

And, while politicians like Giani Zail Singh and Pratibha Patil might not have brought much credit to the presidential office by their willingness to be, well, doormats to the ruling politicians of their time, I have not forgotten President R Venkatraman who was a minister when I began my career in journalism but proved a commendable occupant of Rasthrapati Bhavan during a difficult time in our polity.

I do not know why that consummate politician, Union Agriculture Minister and Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar, should call for a `non-political’ president — unless, of course, that was a slip of he tongue. After all, as I know, he would ask me to give him a `twinkle’ (rather than a `tinkle’) when he wished me to call him up and this time, too, he probably confused `apolitical’ with `non-political’.

An apolitical president is what, I believe, is required at this point in time and someone like Venkatraman, who would know all the nuances and the ins and outs of politics (so that he may not be misled by the political manipulation of lesser leaders than we have had in the earlier decades) and yet rise above that politics to be fair and just and true to the country (and not just to his political party).

I remember Giani Zail Singh saying at the start of his presidency that he would be willing to pick up a broom and sweep the streets of New Delhi if (then) Prime Minister Indira Gandhi wished him to do so. And, yet, at the end of it he was willing to sack her son Rajiv Gandhi as Prime Minister, quite carried away by the manipulations of the latter’s rivals.

Neither extreme does credit to the office and I would like my president to have his/her head sitting firmly on his/her shoulders and know the import of his/her job and the high office he/she occupies.

To that extent, among the names being bandied about, I would root for vice president Hamid Ansari – as a career diplomat he can be expected to know the workings of the government and the Constitution well enough to do credit to the job. And, however much the BJP may fault him for abruptly adjourning the Rajya Sabha sine die during last December’s discussion on the Lokpal bill, secretly many of them know that is exactly what even they had wanted and hoped for (for they hadn’t wanted the Lokpal bill to be passed, either).

But, if as Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah said a few days ago, we would want to wait till the end for there could be a last minute surprise, I believe that surprise could be former Lok Sabha speaker, Somnath Chaterjee. And who would have a quarrel with that choice? I believe Chatterjee is a lawyer-politician-statesman cast in the old mould of the leaders of the 1950s and 1960s. And India, at this point of time, has a crying need for one of that kind. A statesman, not just a politician. An apolitical but wise president, not merely a biddable non-political one.

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