In a little over a year’s time, the term of the current President of India will come to an end. Good man though he is, Abdul Kalam is unlikely to get a second term, a privilege thus far accorded only to the first holder of the office, Rajendra Prasad. Who will succeed him? In political circles in Delhi, various names are doing the rounds. Four I have heard being mentioned are those of Dr Karan Singh, Arjun Singh, Shivraj Patil, and Sushil Kumar Shinde. Of this quartet, perhaps Mr Arjun Singh and Mr Patil have the greatest length of service and depth of devotion to the party’s First Family. But the other two are devoted enough, and have other attributes to boot. Dr Karan Singh is polished in person, dress, and speech, while Mr Shinde is a Dalit from the politically influential state of Maharashtra.
Whoever is finally chosen, the bazaar gossip has it that the next President will be an old Congressman, currently unemployed or under-employed. Let me now complicate the picture by throwing a new name into the ring—that of a non-party (although not non-political) economist born in Bengal but currently resident in Cambridge, Massachussetts. I can think of at least five reasons why Amartya Sen would be the best next President of India.
The first reason is that he would bring to this post a gravitas that it has not had for some forty years. The first two Presidents were men of real distinction. Rajendra Prasad was one of the great figures of the nationalist movement, and President of the Constituent Assembly before he became President of the Republic. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan was a world-renowned philosopher, who held a prestigious chair at Oxford, served as Vice Chancellor of the Andhra and Banaras Hindu Universities, and wrote some very influential works of popular scholarship. Although some honourable men have been President since—I think especially of the current holder of the office and of K. R. Narayanan—none have matched Rajen babu or Dr Radhakrishnan for sheer, solid achievement. And that Amartya Sen will certainly do.
The second reason is that it would be good for India’s image abroad. In an increasingly inter-connected and globalized universe, Amartya Sen is superbly qualified to interpret us to the world, as well as the world to us. In this respect, and endeavour, he would be following in the footsteps of the second President of India. When Dr Radhakrishnan spoke, people of all races sat up and listened. Sen’s audiences would be more captive (and captivated)—for one thing because he has a wider range of interests, for another because he carries that uniquely effective stamp, that bestowed by the Nobel Prize.
Like Dr Radhakrishnan, Amartya Sen is one of nature’s gentlemen. He is polite to his friends and politer to his enemies—if he has any. Radhakrishnan was both a knight of the realm and the editor of a reverential book about that great enemy of empire, Mahatma Gandhi. Sen counts among his friends both the committed globalizer Dr Manmohan Singh and the fervent anti-globalizer Arundhati Roy. He has often been photographed with one or the other (not yet with both, although that moment may still come). That he is so courteous and proper must only be a point in his favour, at least when we are speaking of the chances of his becoming President. We may be sure that as Head of State, Sen will not put a foot wrong or speak a word out of place.
The third reason why Sen should become President is that he would be the perfect bridge between the two most important forces currently in Indian politics—the Congress party and the parliamentary Left. He has friends and followers in both camps. If his name is put up for President, both the Congress and the Communists will support him. In fact, he will probably win by the largest margin since Dr Radhakrishnan in 1962. For Sen is a figure of such commanding authority that even the BJP might offer opposition that is only ‘token’.
Although I do not know either man, it would not surprise me if the possibility that Amartya Sen would make a good President has already crossed Dr Manmohan Singh’s mind. (Crucially, despite his long residence abroad, Sen is still an Indian citizen.) They are old and close friends—so close indeed that one of the Harvard man’s recent books was released at the Prime Minister’s residence. Their mutual respect and affection is manifest. Dr Singh will know what a man like Sen will do for India’s place in the world. And he knows also what Sen can do for the Congress’s currently fraught relations with the Communists. In fact the economist is, if anything, venerated even more widely among left intellectuals and party workers than among the Congress mainstream. On the greatness of Amartya Sen there is perfect accord between Prakash Karat and Buddhadeva Bhattacharya, and, what is perhaps more striking still, between the two of them on the one side and Dr Manmohan Singh on the other.
Making Amarya Sen President would be good for that august office, better for the country’s foreign policy, and still better for its domestic politics. And it would be good for Sen himself, as the perfect climax to a glittering career. Sen is what in middle-class circles used to be known as ‘career first-class first’, except that the exams he passed and topped were rather more substantial than those conducted by Indian universities. The holder of named chairs at Harvard, Oxford, and the London School of Economics; Master of Trinity College, Cambridge; President of the American Economics Association; winner of the Nobel Prize; author of some books that have transformed the landscape of modern thought and of other books that have been best-sellers—Sen has been there, and done everything. There are no more prizes left to be won, except that of the President of India.
The fifth reason why Amartya Sen should become President is that it would be good for Bengal. The province and its peoples have a history of more-or-less legitimate laments against the rest of India. In 1905 Bengal was partitioned, thus to divide Hindus and Muslims and make the province itself less important to India as a whole. Six years later the partition was annulled, but then the capital was shifted from bustling, sparkling, Calcutta to that decrepit old place, Delhi. In the 1920s, a scheming bania from Gujarat conspired to oust the great C. R. Das from the leadership of the national movement. In the 1930s, the bania promoted, as his successor, an aristocratic Allahabadi above the equally talented Subhas Chandra Bose.
After Independence the discrimination has continued. Through the long period of Congress rule, West Bengal was denied its fair share of Central funds, while the policies of ‘freight eqaualization’ sought to undermine its industrial pre-eminence. After the Communists came to power in Kolkata, the Centre tried repeatedly to destabilize them. They failed, but when in 1996 Jyoti Basu should have become Prime Minister it was a Delhi cabal (this time a Communist one) which thwarted his chances. Finally, in 2004, India’s most successful cricket captain, a Bengali, was replaced by a less qualified man from Karnataka.
In the past, the heroes of modern Bengal have all had victory cruelly snatched from them, snatched, as it were, at the finishing line. Subhas Bose should have been the first Prime Minister of India. Jyoti Basu should have become the first Communist Prime Minister of India. Saurav Ganguly should really still be cricket captain of India. But if Amartya Sen does become President, all those failures and humiliations will be forgotten. Bengal and the Bengalis will have what they have long hoped for and, indeed, deserved—a man who was a winner at the end.