Sunday, July 01, 2007

How tall is Mr Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, and how diminutive Mrs Pratibha Patil, in political terms?




The partisan mood and mode in the media should not come as a surprise to anyone. And there is nothing to moan about it either. This can be clearly seen in the coverage of the presidential race this year. A section of the media -- unfortunately the English language electronic and print media -- have tried to campaign for President APJ Abdul Kalam, and tried to make him out to be the 'people's president'. But it proved to be a damp squib because only the urban middle class is enamoured of Kalam's candidacy, wihout even understanding the true worth of India's missile technologist and science and technology policy-maker. But the urban middle class has always been dandyish about politics. It also expressed its preference for Nobel laureate Amartya Sen and Infosys' N.R.Narayanamurthy to be president as well. Despite their putative educational advantages, the English-knowing- speaking dudes and dudettes in this country do a creditable job in exposing their ignorance and naivete.
So, when they could not impose Kalam, Sen and Narayanamurthy, they fell back to accepting the two contenders in the race -- Mrs Pratibha Patil of the UPA-Left Front, and Mr Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, the independent canditate supported by the BJP and the NDA. Surprisingly, the media has not dome much writing about Mr Shekhawat. But they were forced to take note of some of not-very-attractive incidents with regard to a collapsed bank, murder of a local Congress leader and a teacher who had committed suicide in Mrs Patil home district in Maharashtra.
Someone has been hard at work on Mrs Patil's past, and they have indeed come up with a lot of facts, which are not necessarily complete truths. And the media had to go hammer and tong against Mrs Patil based on the facts dug up by some interested parties. Mr Arun Shourie of the BJP has done a pamphlet based on this disconnected information. All is fair in love, war and politics.
The Congress' attempt to did out something about Mr Sjekhawat has proved to be pathetic. The Congress is not good at these things. The party leaders are too laid back, and they do not have this puritanical rage against corruption which some in the BJP have.
But in all this, no one is taking up the issue about the political credentials of the two main presidential contestatnts -- Mrs Patil and Mr Shekhawat. In the case of Mrs Patil, the 'dirty information' has to be ignored at the moment because it does not say much about her political beliefs and her political stature in general. We have to judge her by her official record, which is not only the safest thing to do, but also the right thing to do at the moment when no verified information exists apart from this.
So, what is Mrs Patil's record? She has been a Congress legslator from her early 20s in the 1960s. She held ministerial berths in Maharashtra government. She has done some work in the social and educational sphere. Basically, Mrs Patil emerges as a seasoned provincial politcian. We do not associate her with extraordinary rhetorical, legsilative or leadership skills. But surviving in a party for two decades at the middle level is no mean achievement in political life. So far so good. She is a commpetent politician and nothing more.
Does she have it in her to be the president of India? On the face it, no. There is nothing that suggests that she should be rewarded with the office of the president of India. But in politics, rewards are not based on merit. They are based on chance and opportunity, and also because there is no better alternative at the moment. It is this factor of chance that has brought Mrs Patil into the presidential race, and it cannot be held against her.
Mr Shekhawat is another provincial leader from Rajasthan. He has spent a lifeime in Rajasthan politics, and became a chief minister more than once. He has earned a name for himself as a clever politician, who can manage rivals and opponents, and make the necessary political deals to acquire power.
He has also shown signs of caring for the poor people through his 'antyodaya" scheme when he became the chief minister. At a BJP women's workers meeting in Hyderabad in 1989, Shekhawat declared that when he won the election he did not go to a temple but to the poor people. He had also claimed when he was buffeted by factionalism in Rajasthan BJP, that RSS, the idological mentor of the BJP, was trying to unseat him. He believed that he was fighting the RSS, in the same way that former BJP Delhi leader Madan Lal Khurana did. But those who have seen the poltiical record of Mr Shekhawat in the BJP, and its preveious incarnation, the Jan Sangh, know that he has been a faithful party worker, and he did not ever challenge the RSS on ideological grounds.
It is conceded by evryone that he had done well as Chairman of the Rajya Sabha by being impartial. But he has not shown any great sparkle as Vice President.
In terms of sheer political ability, in terms of political cunning, Mr Shekhawat seems to be streets ahead of Mrs Patil. But he does not appear to be a great political leader of national stature. There is nothing in his lifetime of politics to show that he embraced the whole of India in his poltiical vision as such.
But in politics, victory does not always go to the tall leader. Despite his political edge over Mrs Patil, Mr Shekhawat faces defeat. This will not in any way diminish his stature as a seasoned politician.
But neither Mr Shekhawat nor Mrs Patil can lay claims to be national political leaders. Their politics is rooted in mediocrity, which is no sin in itself. We live in mediocre times, and it is unreasonable to demand that we get great political leaders.

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