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Last Updated: Friday, 13 July 2007, 16:38 GMT 17:38 UK
India's muckraking presidential poll
By Soutik Biswas
BBC News, Delhi

Magazine cover featuring Pratibha Patil
Mrs Patil's nomination has been widely criticised

The position of the head of the Indian state has become the latest casualty of the country's increasingly partisan politics and highlights what is widely seen as an acute crisis of leadership.

The upcoming elections for the nation's 13th president have degenerated into unseemly mud slinging between the ruling party and the opposition over a 'controversial' candidate.

At the centre of this brawl is 72-year-old Pratibha Patil, a little-known ruling Congress party member and a state governor, who was pulled out on an unsuspecting nation after the party's allies rejected other candidates.

The dour and conservative Mrs Patil, who according to one newspaper won a beauty contest in 1962, has been described, among other things, by critics as a "national embarrassment" and a person who is "not exactly the most overwhelming, accomplished or charismatic" candidate.

There is a real crisis of relationship in all political parties
Pratap Bhanu Mehta, analyst
The milder criticism of her comes from a curious admission that a dead guru had given her a "premonition" that she was destined to become India's first citizen.

She also told a Muslim congregation that the veil was introduced to "protect their women from Mughal invaders", a comment she later retracted.

The more serious allegation against Mrs Patil is that a cooperative bank that she helped set up had doled out cheap loans to her relatives before it went into red and folded. The Congress party has rejected the allegations.

Mud slinging

A rattled Congress party has now hit back at the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led opposition candidate, vice-president Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, a 83-year-old party veteran.

The party has alleged that Mr Shekhawat was suspended as a policeman six days after India gained independence in 1947 for taking a bribe. He is also accused of sheltering his son in case of illegal farm land acquisition. The BJP has denied the charges.

Bhairon Singh Shekhawat
Mr Shekhawat has also faced accusations

Analysts say the mud slinging points to the sharp decline of institutions and quality of leaders in India.

They point to scholars and leaders with unimpeachable integrity like Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, Dr Zakir Hussain and Dr Rajendra Prasad who held the president's post in the 1950s and 1960s.

Many will even miss the present incumbent, APJ Kalam, a 75-year-old former government scientist with a nifty hairstyle and endearing nature.

"There are very few politicians who command respect across the political spectrum, and it will be harder to get consensus candidates," says political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta.

"There is a real crisis of leadership in all political parties."

The presidency is largely a ceremonial post. But with a fragmented electorate often throwing up precariously placed hung and coalition governments, a lot will depend on the Indian president's judgement and impartiality.

'Bizarre logic'

But the cavalier manner in which the Congress party nominated Mrs Patil for the job after the allies rejected some of its choices, including a senior cabinet minister, has dismayed most political observers.

Communist allies, for example, rejected Shivraj Patil as a presidential candidate saying that he was soft on Hindu nationalists. But they accept that he is fine as interior minister.

"This is utterly bizarre logic," says Pratap Bhanu Mehta.

The Congress's argument that Mrs Patil's nomination is a "victory for Indian women" also rings hollow, he says.

"It ought to be insulting to women that this is how parties foster their cause."

APJ Kalam
Many want non politicians like Mr Kalam as president
The Indian president is elected by members of the parliament and the state assemblies for a five year term.

The convention is that the ruling party chooses a candidate and works the other parties to agree on the chosen one.

This consensus has been now being poisoned - "There is no precedent for the present mud slinging. Most such elections are tame affairs. The poverty of ideas is what makes this election so low," says analyst Mahesh Rangarajan.

Most middle-class Indians, fed up with their politicians, say that a non-political person of some stature like Mr Kalam should work as an ideal consensus candidate.

Analysts like Mr Rangarajan are not so cynical as to suggest that politicians should stop becoming presidents - sometimes, they say, the office changes the incumbent too.

"We have to give the winner a chance. We have to wait and watch. Much will hinge on how the winner conducts herself," he says.

Most agree that Mrs Patil will win since the political maths is in her favour, but they say it will be one of the lowest margins in the history of presidential polls.

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