President Pranab Mukherjee has made possibly the oddest R-Day address in recent times.
He makes no constructs from major happenings that offer a deep sense of the nation. He has no perspective on how India might conduct itself over the next 25 years. He has no thoughts on anything global, which is where India expects to grow in stature.
The mind of Pranab Mukherjee, instead, is on the politics of India. This, while intriguing, does not provide the loftiness of a presidential address.
It seems entirely possible that the President sat down to write his speech after a dinner discussion with Congressmen. But first, what Mukherjee missed.
The biggest new thing about India is that it has been deemed free of polio. This is the equivalent of 30 teeming nations freeing themselves of a deadly 20th Century disease. A million things have to go right for this to happen.
Apparently it took two million people on the field and 35 years of commitment to overcome this humungous health challenge. The league of polio stragglers included India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria. We have now moved on.
India rarely has such narratives. There is nothing on this in Mukherjee’s address.
The second biggest thing in recent times is India’s Mars mission. It is the most inexpensive such mission on earth. It is the most successful maiden Mars mission. On it hinge hundreds of things, including a permanent seat at the high table in space.
It is proof that India is a smart, sensible, scientific nation that could help the world move ahead. About a hundred countries might now pay for our space skills. This is an actualisation that could play out for decades. Mukherjee doesn’t have a word on this.
The third thing is from Birbhum district where Mukherjee was born. The gangrape of a woman, apparently just out of her teens, on the orders of a village panchayat suggests that India might need a polio-like campaign on gender issues.
If anything, the Birbhum gangrape is worse than the 2012 Delhi bus gangrape. The Delhi assault came from sick minds. It was not a formal act of retribution. The Bengal case seems to involve a collection of men acting as a court of sorts.
It is not the first such impossible-to-believe thought process. An entire ecosystem has to go bad for men to think so – especially when they have been granted the last word. It would need years of counselling and community action for this to change.
It ought to have been on the President’s mind even if he was not born in Birbhum. He didn’t have a syllable on it.
Now, the things Mukherjee said. He had a few acute thoughts: The faultlines of our democracy come from the greedy in power. We hear a street anthem of despair because people feel trust has been violated.
Razor sharp lines were aimed at the Aam Aadmi Party, the youngest political outfit in India. Here are two: Government is not a charity shop. Populist anarchy cannot be a substitute for governance.
For reasons not entirely clear, the President seems to think that the rise of the AAP and a few of its acts in government could push us to the brink of a disaster. This is not correct because the AAP has only had a few days at the helm. It is too small a sample size to warn of danger.
Mukherjee has a towering view from where he sits. He ought to see far more than the rest of us.
It is not entirely honest when the President lays the guilt at the door of the AAP for hypocrisy in public life, flirting with illusions, and triggering disillusionment and rage by false promises. You could think of at least ten other parties in India here with more credence.
There are two other strands of note. Mukherjee warns us of the dangers of coalition government and he refers to the concept of divide and rule in the context of smaller states. In both, he comes from one side when as President he ought to see all sides to an issue.
Coalition governments are not negative in principle. They keep parties on their toes. They reduce monopoly. They allow more space for what the people want. Coalitions become negative because of how they are run. India will get better at this if that is how it will be.
Also, smaller states are not entirely ruinous. There is demand for them because parties came up short in the governance of bigger states. It isn’t presidential to take a position on them just yet.