Yashwant Sinha concludes his autobiography, appropriately titled Relentless, with a line that has proved to be very pertinent after he was chosen on Tuesday as the common candidate of Opposition parties to contest the presidential election next month. He writes: “For me, my journey’s end has no end till I finally go to sleep.”
Though fighting fit at 84, his long and distinguished public life appeared to have entered the last lap. He was a prominent member of Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s cabinet in which he served as the finance and external affairs minister. After he quit the BJP, he became vice president of the Trinamool Congress. With a boldness rare among political leaders, he frequently visited Kashmir as the head of the Concerned Citizens’ Group and criticised the attacks on the identity, dignity and democratic rights of the Kashmiri people under the Narendra Modi government. In 2020, he undertook a gruelling 3,000-km Gandhi Shanti Yatra from Mumbai to Delhi to create mass awareness about divisive politics and “state-sponsored violence”, as was evident in the attacks on anti-CAA protesters. His prolific and powerful pen continues to produce widely admired newspaper articles.
Yet, it seemed that the most active phase of his public life had ended. But it hasn’t. He is now all set to fight the most challenging election of his life. He may not win. But not all battles are to be fought only for victory in the conventional sense of the term. There is also triumph of a different kind in fighting for one’s principles and convictions that are in alignment with the nation’s pressing needs. This is why Sinha’s candidature as the representative of the united Opposition is significant for two reasons. First, by coming together for the presidential election, the anti-BJP parties have answered a question millions of Indians have been asking, with disappointment and frustration, since Narendra Modi’s ascension to power in 2014: “Where is Opposition unity?” The process of forging unity of all Opposition parties has begun.
Second, this process is bound to gain momentum in the run-up to the bigger battle for 2024. The joint statement issued after the meeting of the Opposition parties articulates this resolve clearly: “The BJP government at the Centre has failed totally in fulfilling its promises… It is misusing ED, CBI, Election Commission, Governor’s office and other institutions as weapons against Opposition Parties and state governments run by them… We assure the people of India that the unity of the Opposition parties, which has been forged for the presidential election… will be further consolidated in the months ahead.”
Three leaders deserve special credit for this effort — Sharad Pawar, Mamata Banerjee and Sonia Gandhi. Banerjee and Pawar initiated the two crucial meetings of the Opposition in New Delhi last week, which culminated in Sinha’s candidature. Pawar has already shown his extraordinary political acumen in Maharashtra by achieving what had seemed impossible a few years ago — a coalition government comprising the Shiv Sena, NCP and the Congress. When these three leaders — along with Akhilesh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party, Tejashwi Yadav of the RJD and others, including, possibly, Nitish Kumar of the JD(U) — begin to work together, there will be a big change in the country’s political atmosphere.
Sinha’s words, “my journey’s end has no end,” also ring true in the case of Draupadi Murmu, the BJP’s candidate for the presidential election. Hers has been a life of unending struggle and multiple tragedies, from which she sought solace by associating herself with Brahma Kumaris, a women-led spiritual movement. Depression due to the deaths of her husband and two sons prompted her to think of quitting public life. Yet, destiny opened up new beginnings, first as the Governor of Jharkhand and now, in all likelihood, as India’s next President. The prospect of a woman from the Adivasi community becoming the head of the Republic should certainly be welcomed and rejoiced. Our Republic belongs to all equally, and all, especially those belonging to marginalised communities, must have opportunities to serve the nation.
However, considerations of identity politics, which have influenced the BJP’s decision, cannot be sufficient to determine the suitability of becoming Rashtrapati. Regardless of gender, caste, creed or tribe, the incumbent of that august office must be committed to, and capable of, serving as the custodian of the Constitution. In this context, sadly, we cannot overlook the prime minister’s self-serving calculations. The BJP’s choice of making “a Dalit President” five years ago turned out to be deeply disappointing. Ram Nath Kovind did not even once show the courage to express displeasure over the government’s repeated assaults on democracy, secularism, and independence of the institutions of governance. In 2019, he even acquiesced in Maharashtra governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari’s egregious midnight “coup” of revoking the President’s rule and swearing in BJP’s Devendra Fadnavis as chief minister. Contrast this with the many instances when Kovind’s predecessor, Pranab Mukherjee, publicly voiced his concern over the infringement of the Constitution’s basic values.
A rubber stamp Rashtrapati may suit the needs of an all-powerful prime minister. Getting an Adivasi, who is moreover a woman, elected as the President may well bring electoral benefits to the ruling party. But these are not the purposes for which the makers of the Constitution created the office of the head of state. The majesty of Rashtrapati Bhavan lies less in its grand architecture and more in the extent to which its occupant conscientiously ensures, without fear or favour, the supremacy of constitutional governance in India. Sinha or Murmu, this is what the nation expects from them.
(The writer, formerly an aide to late Prime Minister Vajpayee, was actively involved in the meetings of opposition parties that chose Sinha as their common candidate)