India’s finance minister Pranab Mukherjee is in the running to become the nation’s 13th president.
The job comes with a monthly salary of INR150,000 and an increment of INR40,000 over the cabinet minister’s current take-home salary. He will be residing in the 340-room Rashtrapati Bhavan. It was built by Edwin Lutyens, using 700 million bricks (140 times more than those used at the entire Moen Jo Daro site which has 5 million visible bricks), three million cubic feet of stone and, remarkably, little or no steel.
I think the Rashtrapati Bhavan is quite ugly and has a hotchpotch design. It is not Grecian classical, for it has columns but no pediment. Neither, despite its dome and sandstone, does it look particularly Indian. It is not a memorable building and cannot be imagined easily, unlike the much smaller White House. Writer Sunil Khilnani observed that it was also located in the wrong place, being too recessed to be seen from Rajpath, the long road that leads up to it.
But Mukherjee will be right man in the wrong place.
The current debate is whether the president of India should be a political figure or not. I say he should be. The office of president does not have much power and school textbooks use the word “figurehead” to describe him. However, the office has acquired a real dignity over time and when the president says something it is taken seriously.
The one real slap to the BJP on its conduct in Gujarat came only with an interview of former president KR Narayanan. He said: “There has been government participation in Gujarat riots. I had sent several letters to then Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and also talked to him. But he did not do anything effective… How many instances of the serial killings could have been avoided if the army had resorted to shooting against rioters? The slaughter could have been avoided if the army was given the freedom to stem the riots.” The Supreme Court became active on the issue after this, and a string of convictions has come about in the last few months.
It is important that the president be a politician, because the job often requires knowledge of how things work, as in the instance of Gujarat.
Mukherjee has no equal in the Lok Sabha today to match his experience. Along with Manmohan Singh, he also stands out for his sobriety and maturity. I think he will make a much better president than the other man being considered, vice-president Hamid Ansari.
The last president was a political figure but picked not because of her talent, but because of her gender. Pratibha Patil was India’s first female president and her term was quite unremarkable. She isn’t particularly bright and has said or done nothing of note. Her family, especially her son, took advantage of her office to help them along in their career. Like another president, Shankar Dayal Sharma, she got into trouble when she leaned on the state to get her a retirement house.
Patil loved being photographed in warplanes and tanks. I find this off-putting if not downright offensive. India’s presidents would better serve us if they were photographed highlighting things like sweeping neighbourhoods and teaching children in village schools rather than the state’s martial aspects.
India’s president before her, the apolitical APJ Abdul Kalam, got his fame from setting off atom bombs. Many think that much good came of his presidency. I think he was quite undistinguished and not the right candidate. His fantasy was India becoming a developed nation by 2020. He had nothing to say about the social reasons as to why this is impossible and it took the middle class focus away from India’s pressing problems, which are still with us.
In that sense, Pranab Mukherjee, who has been finance minister and foreign minister has a much better idea about what is wrong with India and what our focus as a nation should be. I think he will make a fine president and giving him the job will also be a good end to a long and distinguished career in politics.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 6th, 2012.
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