Wednesday, 20 June 2012

To Pick a President

The time has come for you to choose
You’d better get it right
-       Motörhead, Lost Johnny

Well, Heaven have pity upon us, how the time does fly!  Here we are, and it’s 2012 already, and we’re all getting ready for the nation-shaking, no, make that Universe-shaking*, Presidential Election.

What? No, I’m not talking about that election. Whether Barack O’Bummer or some other war criminal-cum-corporate proxy takes over the Evil Empire is immaterial from where I’m standing, because a change which makes no difference is no change at all. No, I mean a Presidential Election much, much closer to home – in Delhi, as it happens.

For those of you who don’t know: yes, we have a President – kind of.

The office of the President of India is a curious one. In theory, the incumbent is the nation’s First Citizen and Supreme Commander in Chief. In practice, he (or she) is a colonial throwback, and functions as little more than a glorified rubber stamp for the powers that be.

In order to understand the reason behind this, a little history lesson might not be inappropriate. I’ve often enough characterised Indian society as inherently, almost genetically, feudal. This is the reason that a few thousand British managed to rule over a subcontinent of hundreds of millions essentially unchallenged; they set up a comprador class of “brown sahibs”, educated and made in their image, to rule over the unwashed masses as imperialist proxies. As dispensers of patronage, these “brown sahibs” had the feudal loyalty of the common people; and, they, in turn, gave their own feudal loyalty to the white overlords.

These brown sahibs were, on the whole, very successful. They were the originators of today’s Great Indian Muddle Class, extremely sensitive towards their own interests, and therefore as extremely unwilling to rock the boat. They served the British Empire remarkably well, both directly as administrators, lawyers and policemen; and also as “safety valves” to let off any popular resentment, by leading the fictional nonviolent Indian “freedom struggle” and ensuring it stayed nicely manageable. The leadership of the so-called nonviolent Indian freedom struggle, not excepting Gandhi, was almost entirely comprised of brown sahibs. Elsewhere I’ve made the point that the real Indian freedom struggle was a violent one, and was unsuccessful primarily due to its own unorganised nature and systematic sabotage by the brown sahib class.

In any case, by the end of the Second World War, it was obvious to everyone that the British would leave fairly soon – they no longer had the capacity to hang on to their Indian colonies. The question then arose of what kind of government the newly-independent India would have. As the default ruling class of the New India, the brown sahibs wished to preserve and take over, in every way, the rights and privileges of the British masters. Therefore they moved into the halls and palaces vacated by the departing British, and – among other things – preserved the old colonial penal code almost in its entirety.

[This is, incidentally, also why they continued with a police force which was (and is) completely under political control and whose primary function was (and is) to, first, protect the ruling class and, secondly, to keep the masses under control in the name of “enforcing law and order”. Crime detection comes a distant third in the list of priorities. This is also why the military remained until the early 1960s a bolt-action-rifle-equipped force suited more to internal security duties than open warfare. And today, when a nuclear arsenal has made open warfare virtually impossible, the army is quickly returning to its internal oppression service roots.]

Almost all these brown sahibs were helpless admirers of the British, and hence slavish emulators of them as well. It is entirely due to this that when the time came to draft a Constitution for their newly independent nation, they could not conceive of any which was not as close a copy as possible of the British system. The British had a House of Lords, for instance, which was not directly elected by the people. Ergo, the new India had to have an equivalent Upper House of Parliament, which would also not be directly elected by the people. The British had a “first past the post” system of constituency based elections, therefore India must have the same and not a proportional representation system, even if the latter might have far more accurately represented the will of the majority. The British had a Prime Minister who held powers which made him the de facto ruler of the nation, so the new India should have one too. And the British had a King, so the new India ought to have one as well.

At this point the slavish emulation broke down, because the brown sahibs were committed to a republic. Actually, they had to be, because at the time the British left, the Indian subcontinent had 543 quasi-independent principalities and petty monarchies; how would one choose a monarch from among these competing aspirations? So, there couldn’t be a monarch, but a similar figure had to be substituted as head of state.

The answer was a President without powers, a figurehead who had no role but as a rubber stamp to approve of the decisions made by the Prime Minister and his Cabinet. The President’s role was made explicit – he would “have a Prime Minister and a Cabinet to advise him” and he could not reject any “advice” they offered. At most he could refer the “advice” back to them for reconsideration, but if they again sent it to him, he had no choice but to approve. And, since this President was so utterly powerless, it was, at least theoretically, safe to put anyone in the seat, even someone outside the brown sahib power elite.

And since the feudal nature of the brown sahib government was so closely modelled on the British, there was only one place this monarch-substitute could be housed; the sprawling pink sandstone edifice in Delhi which used to be the British Viceroy’s palace, and was renamed the Rashtrapati Bhavan (Presidential Residence). Even the uniforms of the flunkies were kept the same. If I remember right, until as recently as the 1980s (when the threat of terrorist grenades became serious) the President would be driven to the Republic Day function in a British era horse drawn open carriage surrounded by mounted and elaborately turbaned bodyguards.

Now, obviously, the President was meant to be a complete featherweight, and had no real power at all. However, the brown sahibs had missed out on a crucial point: by substituting the King with a President in an instinctively feudal society, they had imbued the position with a certain monarchical gravitas. The President might be, politically speaking, a cipher, he had no power but to return a draft law for reconsideration, and his concerns could be summarily overruled. However, if he did exercise this one right he possessed and returned a law, that pretty much scuppered it because it would be virtually an act of lese majeste for any Prime Minister to ignore the Presidential will.

Initially, this did not really matter, because the first Prime Minister of the nation, Nehru, was the anointed of Gandhi himself and therefore had almost divine sanction; despite his democratic pretensions, he ruled as a virtual dictator until the last phase of his reign when rising political challenges and military defeat to China compelled him to listen to other voices. Nehru could afford to allow strong personalities as Presidents, men of some spine and ability. But after he passed from the scene, political corruption and infighting meant that a pliant President was essential for a Prime Minister to get away with whatever he or she wanted.

Thus it was that the nation saw such Presidents as Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, who spinelessly signed away Indian democracy in 1975 when the then Prime Minister, Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi, declared an internal Emergency and imposed a two-year dictatorship. Thus it was that a few years later, the same Indira Gandhi put her former Home Minister, Zail Singh, into the Presidential Palace; this Zail Singh declared himself ready to “sweep the floor” if Indira Gandhi ordered him to. Some First Citizen of the Republic!

Of course it must be clearly understood that the quasi-monarchical nature of the President’s post meant that the incumbent could not be directly elected by the populace. Indeed, the Indian system is highly suspicious of empowering the population to directly decide on any point whatsoever (for example, the current so-called Prime Minister of the country is a rubber-spined ex-bureaucrat who has never won a single open election in his miserable life). [Incidentally, this is one of those points where I’m an admirer of the American system; at least there the people get to choose which lackey of the military-industrial complex will get to screw them over. It’s better than having the lackey foisted from above without a pretence of choice. One might hope that Tweedledum will ride on one’s back a little bit lighter than Tweedledee.]

Theoretically, any sane and solvent Indian citizen who was at least 35 years old could stand for election to the post of President, but this was felt to be too dangerous – there was an outside danger that someone far too radical might get in, and in any case too many candidates could dangerously dilute one’s own candidate’s vote. So, in the name of eliminating “non-serious” candidates, so many regulations were imposed that it’s difficult now to stand for the post unless one’s the nominee of one political alliance or another.

So this is how they do it: the President is elected every five years from an “electoral college” comprising primarily the elected members of the political class, which was – and in its top echelons still largely is – drawn from amongst the brown sahibs. Since these elected politicians (at the state and the national level) are almost entirely members of political parties, and since these parties are in loose alliances, the “contest” for the post of the President boils down to the relative strength of the alliances, and turns into a power struggle by proxy, each side trying to get its own man into that pink sandstone building.

There are complex calculations to arrive at the “right” candidate. Naturally, he must be pliant and reliable, but that’s not all. Since – as I’ve mentioned many times before – most Indian political parties are basically family-owned private businesses, the choice of Presidential candidate is their one main chance to prove their liberal and socially responsible credentials. Despite India’s alleged secularism, everyone knows perfectly well that a Muslim or Christian can never become the Prime Minister. Therefore, we’ve had a disproportionate number of Muslim Presidents (and a couple of Vice-Presidents as well). We’ve had a man from a former “untouchable” caste – KR Narayanan – as President (he gave the brown sahibs a scare, since he turned out to be a man of integrity and backbone, so he wasn’t given another term). And right now we have a woman President, thus proving the current government’s feminist credentials, and distracting attention from its failure to pass any meaningful pro-woman legislation. Incidentally, this woman President, Pratibha Patil, has been openly called a disgrace to the office she occupies. Even by the standards of pliant figureheads, she plumbs a new low.

Well, now, Pratibha Patil’s five years of disgracing the Presidential Palace are drawing to an end, and nobody has even attempted to seriously suggest that she be given another term. Therefore, the political shenanigans are on to put up candidates for next month’s election. Who is going to succeed her?

A little background to the current political situation is essential in order to attempt to find an answer to this question.

 If there’s a metaphor which accurately sums up the state of the current government, led by the Congress Party, it’s “zombie”. Hammered by one corruption scandal after another on one hand (the sums are so mind-boggling as not to make any sense), and by skyrocketing inflation on the other, the government has pretty much ceased to exist, let alone govern. It’s just shambling around, dead to all intents and purposes, but refusing to lie down.

The Congress Party’s Great White Hope (more accurately Great Half-White Hope, since he’s half-Italian) was the dynastic scion and Crown Prince, Nehru’s great-grandson Rahul Gandhi. As I said here, the incumbent “prime minister” is an unelected and unelectable ex-bureaucrat called Manmohan Singh, whose primary qualifications for the post he holds are his fealty to the Congress Party’s ruling dynasty and his complete lack of a political base, which means he can never be a threat to the said dynasty.  His role was envisaged as a combination of proxy for the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty and a chair-warmer, who was expected to stand aside in favour of the Crown Prince when the time was ripe. (As it happens, there was speculation three years ago that 2012 would be the year when the time became ripe, with Singh being kicked upwards to the Presidential chair and Rahul Gandhi taking over as prime minister.)

But after a recent string of electoral defeats, it’s now more than obvious that Gandhi himself is incapable of winning votes for his party, and putting him into the Prime Minister’s position would mean making him captain of a sinking ship. The Congress Party being a Gandhi family fief, the imperative is to shield him at all costs. Nor can the dynasty risk someone with a political base of his own getting into power – the last time this happened was in the early nineties, when someone named PV Narasimha Rao became prime minister; it took years for the dynasty to recover control of the party.

Narasimha Rao is now long dead, but there are at least two powerful candidates in the Congress who might emerge as rival power centres to the dynasty. I’ve mentioned them before as potential replacements to Manmohan Singh: the finance minister, Pranab Mukherjee, who had come close to the Prime Minister’s chair before more than once; and a sleazy ex-corporate lawyer and mining company shill called P Chidambaram, who serves as the dynasty’s Home Minister. Of these, the unsavoury Chidambaram is far the lesser threat, but Mukherjee is a serious danger. He’s not known to be corrupt and actually retains something of a spine, which is a remarkable achievement in the Congress Party. With Manmohan Singh now one of the living dead, it’s becoming more and more difficult to justify his continuation in the prime minister’s chair; but he can’t be allowed to vacate it either.

Therefore, the only real Congress candidate who might replace him, Pranab Mukherjee, had to be got out of the way. If he could be made President, the dynasty would actually achieve several goals all at once. Right off the bat, I can think of at least five:

First, it would remove him from the succession (after a stint as President, he’s supposed to be above active politics) and neutralise him as a threat to Rahul Gandhi.

Secondly, though in recent years Mukherjee has largely followed the neoliberal economic policies dictated by India’s new overlords in Washington, he’s one of the last survivors of the Congress Party’s old guard, which had once had vaguely socialistic credentials. Mukherjee simply isn’t capitalistic enough to suit certain people. If he can be made president, the post of finance minister can be filled by someone more supinely pro-Big Business even than he. Already the talk is that he will be replaced by Montek  Singh Ahluwalia, another unelectable ex-bureaucrat with no political base. This Ahluwalia is (in)famous for proclaiming that food prices in India are rising because people have so much money to spend (this, while the poor have access to less food than before and stockpiled grains rot in silos). I’d say his actions as finance minister might be fairly predictable.

Third, Mukherjee is – like the majority of India’s official “left” (as distinct from the real left, which shuns electoral politics) an ethnic Bengali. The Congress government originally came to power with the help of the “left”, which it then dumped in order to cosy up to Washington. But now, with the Hindunazi right resurgent, the Congress probably feels the need to build bridges with the “left” again. Since Bengalis are among the most parochial people in the world (I know; I’m one myself), the Bengali members of the “left” would react with enthusiasm to the idea of one of “their own” becoming President. [That this calculation wasn’t off the mark was clearly borne out by the fact that the larger of the two main “communist” parties (actually, a washed-out pink) has welcomed the idea, despite its alleged ideological opposition to Mukherjee.]

Fourth, the chances are that the next national election, due in two years’ time, will see the Congress-led coalition government thrown out of office. If a ramshackle coalition succeeds them, it would be extremely useful to the dynasty to have a Congress proxy in the President’s chair to take advantage of any splits or political crises to ask the Congress to form the government again. If the Hindunazis succeed them, it would be similarly useful to have a Congress President to stymie, as far as possible, the new government’s policies. Remember what I said about the President’s monarchical status?

Fifth, the Congress party is at the mercy of a most troublesome ally: the Chief Minister of the state of West Bengal, Mamata Bannerjee. This woman leads a party called the Trinamool (Grassroots) Congress, over which she rules as absolute dictator, and in recent times she has begun acting so autocratically as to have become an extreme embarrassment to the Congress. The Congress was looking for an opportunity to put the Trinamool Congress in its place, and since (for whatever reason) Mamata Bannerjee is vehemently opposed to Pranab Mukherjee’s candidature, making him the candidate was the perfect means of achieving that end.

Therefore, it’s hardly a surprise that the Congress has decided on Pranab Mukherjee as its candidate; what’s surprising is that it took so long to decide it. Till a relatively recent time, it kept insisting that it couldn’t spare him; I wonder when the penny dropped, or who was responsible for it dropping. Not Mukherjee, you can be sure. He’s far too intelligent not to know when he’s being kicked upstairs.

From left: Unelected "Prime Minister" Manmohan Singh, Pranab Mukherkjee, and dynasty head Sonia Gandhi

The move seems to have caught the Hindunazis flatfooted. They still haven’t, as of this writing, decided on their own man for the post. There was talk of putting up Pratibha Patil’s predecessor, “Dr” APJ Abdul Kalam, who was also Mamata Bannerjee’s favoured candidate, for a second term. But “Dr” Kalam is a canny individual, who has achieved a level of mass popularity through judicious self-promotion (for example, the “Dr” he sports before his name is merely an honorary doctorate, but he allows it to be assumed that he has a PhD). He has little reason to risk this popularity by getting down into politics again, and has let it be known that he won’t contest unless assured of getting a minimum of 60% of the votes. He knows this won’t happen because even though he’s popular and though he is a Muslim, he’s far too closely associated with the Hindunazis, whose candidate he was last time round.

So, the Hindunazis are still floundering around for a candidate. Meanwhile, they’ve had an additional shock: the most openly Nazi of the Hindunazi parties, the Shiv Sena of Maharashtra state, has even decided to support Mukherjee.

As of this writing, the only declared opponent to Pranab Mukherjee is the former Chief Minister of this state, Purno Agitok Sangma. A couple of decades ago, Sangma was a politician with a bright future, with his star clearly in the ascendant. But he fell afoul of the Congress dynasty and left the party. Now, he is almost a pathetic figure. reduced to pleading his case as a candidate who, because he is a Christian and a tribesman (he belongs to the Garo tribe), deserves to be President. Even his own Nationalist Congress Party (like its fellow offshoot the Trinamool Congress, the NCP is a Congress ally) has threatened to expel him unless he withdraws; but Sangma is, as of this writing, still in the fray. It’s unclear what support he has, if any.

Again, as of this writing, it seems that Pranab Mukherjee will likely be the next President, unless the Hindunazis pull a rabbit out of their hat. Either way, it hardly makes a difference in the long run.

A rubber stamp by any other name would ink just as blue.

*We Indians don’t merely shake worlds; we shake entire Universes. Let the Chinese carry out their puerile space expeditions and their pathetic little successful orbital docking manoeuvres and so on. We Indians are better than them!  Someday we will rule the galaxies with hypersonic planes! After all, our ancestors invented everything from the nuclear bomb to genetic engineering. And yah boo sucks to you!


  1. It sounds as if your politics aren't much different than ours. Our people don't directly elect our presidents and our presidents are basically appointed corporate lackeys... even moreso now.

    1. I thought the same thing, Cal!

      as i got farther into it, it sounds like the Presidential position really IS fairly different.

      but the idea that you have a small elite serving the moneyed powers and expecting the rabble to fall into line is the same the world over - at least in the nations that "count"...

      And having a police force there to protect property of that same elite goes right along with that.

      I read stuff by a guy named Derrick Jensen, and he lays into Gandhi over, of all things, non-violence! He says it only works if you assume your oppressors have human feelings - otherwise, they will just keep rolling over generations of rabble.

      There's something to that, unfortunately...

  2. Bill,
    Wow, Indian politics doe not look that different than what we have in the old US of A.
    As stated above, a small elite who choose who runs and gets the nomination. The rest of us go through the motions of voting and deciding the "winner", but it is all just a scam.
    India, welcome to the 21st century and US style politics as theater. If only Monty Python were still doing their shows. I need a good laugh.


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