Open Diary

Swapan Dasgupta is an MP and India’s foremost conservative columnist
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The memory of an Indira era presidential poll and the forgotten leadership of Syama Prasad Mookerjee

APART FROM 1969 when Indira Gandhi made it into a proxy battle, elections for India’s President have been remarkably sedate affairs. True, there have been contests, but they have been largely symbolic. Most people would be hard put to recall the names of unsuccessful presidential candidates. Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, who lost to Pratibha Patil in 2007, may be an exception because he was a former Vice President and many times Chief Minister of Rajasthan.

Presidential contests are mock battles that occasionally, but very occasionally, test the political clout of the ruling formation at the Centre. In the main, however, the political class doesn’t attach too much significance to the contest. Once elected, the President becomes a symbol and is elevated to a completely ceremonial role. The individual’s past political background is subsumed by the imperatives of Constitutional propriety. Simply put, the President is supposed to act on the advice of the Union Cabinet.

The only discretionary power available to the President is in the event of a fractured election verdict. Should he give the first throw of the dice to the leader of the largest party, as Shankar Dayal Sharma did in 1996 when he swore in Atal Bihari Vajpayee for what was to be a 13-day government? Alternatively, should he first satisfy himself that the claimant enjoys a majority before he is sworn-in, as KR Narayanan did in 1998 and 1999?

None of these questions centred on the discretionary powers of the President has—understandably— been raised during the Ram Nath Kovind versus Meira Kumar contest. These questions don’t belong to the election. At the same time, it is intriguing that Meira Kumar, a former Speaker who knows the Constitution well, has chosen to present her contest as a battle of ideologies.

This assertion is intriguing. Whatever be the personal beliefs of the President, he has to act on the advice of the Council of Ministers. The question of ideologies is academic, as Pranab Mukherjee so vividly demonstrated during his tenure. By speaking of ideology as an issue, the former Speaker is suggesting something dangerous: that her election will lead to the elected Government being supplied a road map by Rashtrapati Bhavan.

The suggestion is absurd. I am baffled that our pundits haven’t dealt with this subversive doctrine at all in their public interventions.

LAST WEEK I WAS in Kolkata to speak at a function marking the birth anniversary of Syama Prasad Mookerjee. What was interesting about this event was that it was held in Jadavpur, once a suburb but now in the heart of South Kolkata.

Jadavpur is, of course, well known for its university. However, what many outsiders are unaware of is that once upon a time the area to the south of the university campus was known as a refugee ghetto. This was where a large chunk of migrants from East Pakistan, as it was known then, settled after Partition. The refugees were mostly members of the Hindu lower-middle class, the economically impoverished Bhadralok that had been the mainstay of the nationalist movement in East Bengal.

In northern India, the dispossessed refugees from Pakistan met personal hardship with sturdy determination, entrepreneurship and some generous assistance from the Government. Yesterday’s refugee colonies in Delhi, for example, are now prime real estate and most of those who fled Pakistan have prospered in Independent India.

In West Bengal, alas, it was a very different story. The refugees languished in colonies that lacked amenities. Government help was nominal because the Centre kept up the pretence, at least till the 1960s, that the refugees would perhaps return. Then there was the indifference of the West Bengal Congress leadership that saw the refugees as trouble-makers and a vote bank of the Communists. There was a complete lack of empathy with their plight. Which is why the refugee problem in West Bengal has never really disappeared.

Syama Prasad was the only leader of consequence who spoke forcefully about the plight of refugees from East Pakistan. He even resigned from Jawaharlal Nehru’s Cabinet on this issue. In 1952, he won a Lok Sabha seat from South Calcutta campaigning on this issue. Unfortunately, he died the very next year while incarcerated in Kashmir. He was just 52 and at the peak of his career.

Syama Prasad has secured recognition nationally as the founder of the movement that successfully broke the Congress’ monopoly over political power. But, ironically, he has become a largely forgotten figure in West Bengal, not least because Bengalis have chosen to live in denial over Partition.