The President of India has to be the perfect mix of symbol and substance. Let’s put it without any hesitation. PA Sangma fits the bill perfectly.
Let’s not put him in comparison with other likely contenders for the President’s job. Comparison is a hopelessly reductionist exercise — it distorts complete people by reducing them to measurables. Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee is a brilliant candidate as is Vice President Hamid Ansari. Both are people of great learning and both command great respect among peers. If former President APJ Abdul Kalam comes into picture at some point, the country gets a rich variety of choices for the top job.
PA Sangma’s credentials are no less significant. Former Speaker of Lok Sabha, former Chief Minister of Meghalaya and a member of the Lok Sabha for eight terms — all this is qualification enough to put him in the league of other possible contenders. Given the present political equations and the arrangement of numbers, the NCP leader does not appear to have much of a chance. However, his candidature offers a great opportunity to the country.
It is not important that he is a tribal and no tribal ever became President of the country though Sangma himself would like to emphasise on it. In him the rest of the country has a chance to build bridges with the North-East, the vast, strategically important region which stays under the nation’s radar all the time, either by default or by design. He could be instrumental in bringing the region to national focus.
The physical and psychological alienation of the people of the region from Delhi has a long history, beginning with the transfer of the capital of British India from erstwhile Calcutta to Delhi in 1911. Post-Independence, the distance has grown progressively with the northern states dominating the political space and virtually drowning out the voices from the North-East. Economic and cultural disparity between the two Indias has been stark. What has aggravated matters is the lack of efforts at the government’s level to facilitate communication between the both.
Things have come to such a pass that for many in Delhi, states Sikkim, Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh exist in another planet. Many in the North-East believe they don’t belong to India. The recent spate of attacks on students of North-East in Delhi and other states is the manifestation of the deep distrust. The country needs to address the situation fast. Otherwise, it might end up losing all influence in the region.
If parties decide to choose Sangma as President, which, of course, is a near impossibility, it would go a long way in arresting the growing sense of alienation in the North-East. It would bring back the region into national consciousness besides serving to reduce the bitterness it harbours towards the rest India. The affable leader would be a great facilitator in normalising relations all around.
Symbolism may look an empty exercise but it is not without its uses. Let’s face it, the selection of Presidents in India has mostly been about symbolism. Pratibha Patil was made President because India never had a woman head of the state, APJ Abdul Kalam was Muslim, Zail Singh was a Sikh and so on. Nothing exactly wrong in that though political calculations plays big role in it. It reflects the inclusive character of our polity and the ability to acknowledge the presence of neglected sections.
The fundamental purpose is to send a message. Sangma’s election as President would serve that precise purpose. However, the only parties backing him now are the Biju Janata Dal and the AIADMK. Other parties must see the opportunity in it.