Monday, September 04, 2006

VIPs: Some are, Simply, Simple

(Sonia Lunches with 'Commoner' - Newspaper headline.

Karnataka Chief Minister, Mr H D Kumaraswamy, has taken to overnight halts at villagers' residence while he is out on tour. This way, says CM, I get to understand people's grassroots problem better.
We have a President with the common touch. The very name A P J Kalam has become synonimous with simplicity. Following piece appeared in July 2002; was written on the eve of Dr. Kalam's shift in residence from the residential quarters of Anna University, Chennai, to Rashtrapati Bhavan.)

So, our 'missiles man' Kalam put himself through the security routine at Chennai airport the other day. Kalam Insists On Going Through Security Process said a page four box-item in The Hindu. His 'insistence' on opening up his own hand baggage for inspection is understandable. For A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, after moving to Rashtrapati Bhavan, would no longer be allowed to get away with such a thing. Surely, we can't have our President queuing up at the Indian Airlines check-in counter.

Dr. Kalam being frisked by a CISF chap before walking through a metal-detector would have made a great picture. It could have been turned into a media event. His airport security act might be seen by critics as a PR exercise. But then the MIT (Madras Institute of Technology) diploma-holder in aeronautical engineering who scaled such heights in the world of academics and scientists doesn't have to resort to such stunts. The humility and simplicity of the man is writ large on his face, attire and demeanour. In fact, if Dr. Kalam were to travel abroad without the Presidential 'bandha,' some uninformed 'immigration' bloke at a European airport might pull him in for questioning, as happened to Dr. Amartya Sen at Zurich airport some time back.

At Coonoor, where I live, I have seen Field Marshal Maneckshaw awaiting his turn at the cash counter in a bank. My bank employee neighbour Jayakumar made acquaintance with the Field Marshal during his periodical visits to the Bedford branch of Union Bank. An ex-serviceman himself, Jayakumar is overwhelmed by Maneckshaw's refreshing accessibility - "When I was in the army I couldn't dream of going anywhere near the general, let alone having a word with him."

Dr. Shankar Dayal Sharma, as union communications minister, used to visit the Hanuman temple in New Delhi's Irwin Road on Thursday evenings without 'bandobast.' The message Kalam and Maneckshaw send out through personal example is generally lost on most others in public life, for whom rules and regulations are meant for lesser mortals, and flouting them is the norm for a VIP. Haven't we heard of 'chota-mota' political busybodies throwing their weight about at airports and, at times, holding up commercial flights to await the late arrival of some VIP? Black cats in attendance, escort vehicles and advance patrol cars constitute the ultimate status symbol.

We now have a President who delights in browsing at airport bookstalls and chatting with the sales staff. The question is: would Dr. Kalam be able to, nay, would he be allowed to, do his thing, now that he has tenanted Rashtrapati Bhavan? Presidential office is protocol-driven and an element of pomp and ceremony goes with the turf. Initial reaction to Kalam's choice as the NDA presidential nominee was one of surprise in many quarters. Besides, one doesn't associate the likes of Dr. Kalam with the political polemics the presidential race evoked.

And then, it was not as if he got elected to the highest office in the land on the strength of personal credentials. Dr. Kalam wasn't even the first choice of NDA, which was shopping for an expedient 'minority' candidate. Cynics would have us believe that there was a toss-up between Muslim and 'Isai' in which the former had an edge. The outcome of the presidential race would have been different had Dr. Kalam been adopted by the left parties instead of the NDA.

Viewed in this light, the presidential race smacked of political match-fixing. Everyone knew the score even before the game started. What mattered was the numbers, not the relative merits of the opposing candidates. There is no such thing as 'conscience' vote in political contests. The last time they resorted to the ploy was when Indira Gandhi backed V.V. Giri in the name of 'conscience' vote against the official presidential nominee of the Congress. In politics, you follow your 'conscience' only if you want to split the party.

I admire Capt. Lakshmi Sahgal for her courage in taking on a fight she very well knew she couldn't win. She called it a 'symbolic' contest; willingly submitted herself to becoming the 'symbol' for the side that didn't have the numbers, but wanted to make a political point. The left parties sought to demonstrate their 'ideological' divide with the BJP-led ruling alliance.
NDA, in its choice of Dr. Kalam, sought to play the 'minority' card. We didn't see him as a Muslim till the BJP-driven ruling coalition opted for Dr. Kalam's candidature.

We have had Muslims as Presidents before, but the circumstances were not the same. The Gujarat riots and BJP's party political compulsions in the state accounted for an unwarranted focus on Dr. Kalam's minority status. Likewise, few saw Capt. Sahgal as a Tamilian. That she was a Tamil by birth was made out to be a factor in the contest against the Ramanathapuram-born A.P.J. Kalam. We have had a contest between two illustrious persons who belonged to the same and the smallest of the minority groups - 'Hindustani.'

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