In Central Hall last week, at a chance meeting with journalists, Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee made a case for why Pranab Mukherjee was not a candidate for the president of India. “His own party has said he is too important to be sent to Rashtrapati Bhavan,” she said. When asked how she could oppose the appointment of a Bengali as president, she said: “I am an Indian. I am not just a parochial Bengali.”
Objectively speaking, these are the only two factors that stand between Pranab Mukherjee and Rashtrapati Bhavan — that his own party has not endorsed his candidature; and that Banerjee will oppose his elevation.
There are reasons for both. The Congress has noted that the Opposition has already begun celebrating the fact that Mukherjee might go to Rashtrapati Bhavan, though his own party is yet to back him. The way the Congress sees it, this is just a ploy to make an already weak government, even weaker: pluck out the most important strategician from the government and make sure he is out of the equation. As far as Banerjee’s reluctance is concerned, she sees absolutely no reason why – after all the humiliation and insults he has heaped on her in the past – she should be the vehicle on which Mukherjee should ride to Raisina Hill.
Almost no one is thinking of the other man in the race, who has done his work quietly for five years, always speaking his mind but never in a way that it causes controversy: Hamid Ansari.
Ansari’s elevation, not surprisingly, is being resisted by most Muslim MPs in the Congress, the classical crab manoeuvre. No one – except this lot – is opposing him actively. Sushma Swaraj’s comment that he lacked stature was met with disbelief. Stature?
Being the kind of man he is, Ansari would never tom-tom this fact. His grand-uncle was a member of the Congress Working Committee all his life and Congress president in 1927. Mukhtar Ahmad Ansari was a doctor with an MD from England — and in those days, so well-known that the Charing Cross Hospital, London, has a ward named after him. He returned to India to work with Gandhiji, leading the Medical Mission to Turkey (1912) and the Khilafat delegation to England (1920). He was one of the founders of Jamia Millia Islamia to promote Muslim education, persuading, coaxing and coercing not just money out of wealthy Muslims but also talent to get the university off the ground.
His grand-nephew Hamid Ansari spent his entire working life in Indian Foreign Service, rising to become India’s Permanent Representative in the United Nations and India’s ambassador in Saudi Arabia, Iran and Afghanistan — all hot spots from India’s point of view.
The years of the late 1990s was a period of great anxiety in India over the activities of the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC) in which India was routinely bashed by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia on Kashmir. Ansari was the one who took an unpopular but accurate stand and forced a change in thinking. He argued that Kashmir was just a camouflage for serious power rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran for the leadership of the Islamic world. He told New Delhi to ignore OIC and Saudi Arabia’s rant over Kashmir and counselled independent Indo-Saudi ties in a strategic manner, keeping in its sights two issues: remittances by Indians in Saudi Arabia from a country that has two of the holiest shrines for Muslims; and that Saudi Arabia was not just the US’ most trusted strategic ally but would also continue to be the most significant petroleum producer in the years to come. There was much to learn from a country that had several social security schemes financed by wealth funds independent of oil income. With the Gu lf states no longer central to the US, it is to India and China that these nations would look.
The investments made in the late 1990s bore fruit in 2010 when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh went to Riyadh. India got an unprecedented welcome. King Abdullah waved away bureaucratic objections about offending Pakistan by Riyadh’s closeness to India and said India was a “special case”. He also emphasised his country’s commitment to uninterrupted oil supplies to a friendly country such as India regardless of global price trends.
On political issues, Ansari has been a textbook vice-president. He has given no press interviews but has made his mind known on every important issue confronting society and the economy through his speeches that are frank and stimulating. On education, just when the government was thinking of Right to Universal Education, he said while it was important to send children to school, the quality of output, too, needed to be measured. He did not make himself popular at a meeting of Comptrollers and Auditors General in Shimla where he said India should have a multi-member CAG and subject itself to external audits. On so-called Muslim issues, he told the community bluntly to stop relying on the government for handouts. “The syndrome of victimhood does not help and there are lessons to be learnt from the experience of other minorities,” he said in the Khuda Baksh Memorial Lecture in Patna.
As chairman of the Rajya Sabha and vice-president, Ansari was scrupulously fair. As president, he will shore up the post’s tottering image, bring dignity and grace to the office and do India proud. Given Mukherjee’s popularity and the configuration of political forces in the government and Opposition, the balance of advantage is in his favour. But, at the same time, the country needs to think about whom it elects as president — and why.