Saturday, June 30, 2007

Mounting hostility towards Pratibha Patil

Nobody can say that Pratibha Patil is coming in for flak only from the rival camp. In the media, the criticism is mounting. Today, Business Standard editor TN Ninan has asked the Congress to change its candidate even if at the last minute (today is the last day for filing of nominations). Ninan argues that the roster of charges against Patil is too formidable to be shrugged off in somebody who is the contender for the president's job.

Doing this (withdrawing Patil's name) will mean eating humble pie, but that is better than presenting the country with a five-year embarrassment; even the generally intransigent Left will presumably be willing to go in for a compromise candidate.

What would be least desirable is any attempt to defend Ms Patil’s record. From the revelations that have tumbled out of her cupboard, it is clear that she misused and mismanaged a cooperative bank that she founded, named after herself and led both formally and informally, mostly to benefit her close relatives. After warnings on the bank’s performance, the Reserve Bank was forced to take the extreme step of canceling its licence. The bank had to be liquidated as a consequence, and depositors must have lost a lot of money. It is hard to argue that Ms Patil is not to blame or that she did not know, and the Prime Minister’s explanation about the ups and downs of the sugar industry being responsible for the bad loans is laughable.

Then there are the allegations, as yet unproven, of Ms Patil’s relatives being linked to a murder and a suicide. On top of which there is the record of Ms Patil having spoken during the Emergency in favour of compulsory sterilization of selected categories of people. Finally, there are her more recent comments on the woman’s veil, Mughal rule, and communing with spirits—all of which presage other embarrassing comments that will come if she is President. The question the UPA must ask itself is whether, if it had known all this earlier in the month, Ms Patil would have been chosen as its presidential candidate. If not, the logical action that must now follow is also clear.

Shekhar Gupta echoes the criticism in the Indian Express although he is less hopeful of a change of heart on the part of the Congress.

ULTIMATELY, in politics, the logic of numbers prevails, so there is no doubt that Pratibha Patil will be our next president. But when was the last time a prime minister had to defend his presidential candidate by arguing that all sugar industry was suffering from a slump. Does that imply that it is okay if all sugar mill owners default on their loans? And, if so, why not announce a loan waiver for the sugar sector? Or, will we then institute a policy of loan write-offs for any sector of the industry that faces a slump?

Since the Congress now seems determined to brazen it out, there seems no doubt that Pratibha Patil will be our next president. At the same time, let there be no doubt that her tenure as president will be the most controversy-ridden in the history of Rashtrapati Bhavan. Nobody can predict the fall-out of some of these controversies, particularly those that happen to be under judicial scrutiny. It is one thing to have someone holding a conventional political position, a minister, a chief minister, exposed to those risks. But the president of the Republic?

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