Ambition is no mean thing. It is the elixir that drives all politics and most creative impulses but there is a difference in wearing your ambition on your sleeve and spouting it like a megaphone. What does one make of P.A. Sangma’s rediscovery of himself as a tribal and the pointed comparison with Barack Obama? Politicians eulogise themselves in all kinds of ways when they want votes and the NCP leader is entitled to his hard-nosed canvassing.
Yet, there is something ungainly about the spectacle of a former Lok Sabha speaker speaking of the Presidential election in the language of denial, as if Raisina Hill is only a decorative tiara created to be passed around between the disadvantaged and the downtrodden, some sort of a guilt complex-reduction mechanism for the wounded conscience of the Republic.
Muslims have had it, so have Sikhs, Dalits and women, now a tribal must have it: is the sum of Mr Sangma’s argument. Yes, a great deal was made of the symbolism of India’s first Dalit President; yes, Zail Singh’s investiture was calculated to appease Punjab during the first flushes of Sikh militancy; and yes, a great deal of gender-cheering accompanied Pratibha Patil’s election. In 2004, similarly, a great deal was made of India having a Sikh Prime Minister, a Muslim President and a Roman Catholic as head of its largest political party. In a country where much of politics is about correcting historical wrongs, the symbolism of a tribal President will surely be accompanied with the same kind of drumbeating but there is something fundamentally wrong in this kind of logic of entitlement and merry-go-round with the office of the country’s first citizen.
Politicians make all kinds of calculations and symbolic gestures in every contest but if this is to be the publicly stated criteria then there is no end to this kind of race for firsts: the first first Gujjar President, the first Meena, the first Maratha, the first Koli, the first Patel, the list can be endless. Not to mention the first Bengali, for that matter.
Raisina Hill is meant to embody the nation so it must represent it in all its shades but the trouble with this kind of overt competitive jockeying of ethnicities and identities is that it reduces the preeminent figurative office of the land into simply a quota-type entitlement.
This is not to deny that the idea of an adivasi in Rashtrapati Bhawan is not a powerful one or one that should be dismissed lightly. This is simply to argue that it does not really behove a candidate for such an office to bandy around his credentials in such a language of grievance and ethnicity alone, especially one who built a reputation for himself as a sort of elder statesman in Delhi during his term as Lok Sabha speaker.
Mr Sangma makes the Obama comparison but it is pertinent to point out that while the Obama campaign adroitly rode on the historic change it embodied, Obama himself in his campaign speeches rarely spoke the language of minority-ism or race justice, preferring others to make the point, while he concentrated on the soaring rhetoric of Americanism.
Even seen on its own terms in the manner in which it has been put forward Mr Sangma’s tribal candidature is less a symbolic gesture and more a cynical political gambit. He has spoken of the virtues of a tribal candidate in a land challenged by the Maoist movement and its tribal wellsprings but for most Indians it would be somewhat disingenuous to pretend that the ‘tribal’ tag for a politician from Meghalaya’s West Garo Hills is the same as that for an adivasi from the Maoist heartlands, even if he is a sitting MLA from a reserved Scheduled Tribe constituency.
Paradoxically, Mr Sangma’s gambit may have had more credibility if he had portrayed himself as the candidate from the neglected North-East, which so often is only treated as a footnote in national politics.
Despite the vocal support of Naveen Patnaik and Jayalalithaa, Mr Sangma is so far getting few takers in the political firmament, at least publicly. The numbers he is hoping to muster look tricky for now and by couching his ambition in a tribal cloak, he is in danger of coming across more as an out-of-work politician (at least in Delhi) looking for another bid at glory and less as the conscientious tribal rights crusader of his projection.
Gravitas counts in a contest like the Presidential election and dignified silences sometimes speak far more than loud canvassing. The Congress is still to reveal its cards openly but there is a reason why Pranab Mukherjee has wisely refused to comment so far on his interest in the office. If there is to be a political contest then the Sangma candidacy may actually strengthen the case for Pranab Mukherjee, given that the Congress can ill-afford to lose this battle and the general goodwill the finance minister enjoys.
The finance minister has seemed a happy man in recent days to some journalists on the beat in Lutyen’s Delhi. We don’t know why and can only speculate but Mr Sangma’s posturing may have widened the smile on his face.