Presidential elections in India have seldom generated heat, except in 1969 when then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi pitted V.V. Giri against her own party’s official nominee Neelam Sanjiva Reddy. She feared that Reddy was chosen by the Syndicate, a powerful ginger group in the Congress, to control her as prime minister. Giri won the contest hands down, thanks to her solid support.
The President of India is like, the Queen of England, a titular head, who reigns but does not rule. It is in his name that everything is done in the government but he cannot act, except on the specific advice of the Union Cabinet. But at the time of formation of a new government, he is not bound by any such advice in inviting the leader of the party, which commands majority support in the Lok Sabha, the Lower House of Parliament, to form the government.
When the electoral verdict is clear with a party or alliance getting a clear majority, he has to follow the rule book. Given the direction in which national politics moves, few expect either the Congress or the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to emerge the clear winner in the next elections in 2014. They all know that in a fluid political situation, the president will be in a position to pick and choose the next prime minister.
Small wonder that every political party would like to have someone favourably disposed towards it to be ensconced in Rashtrapati Bhavan, no less ornate and sprawling than the White House in Washington. That is why everybody who is somebody wants to know who would succeed President Pratibha Singh Patil when she completes her five-year term in a couple of months.
The president is elected by an electoral college consisting of the members of Parliament (MPs) and state legislatures. The total value of the MPs’ votes is roughly equal to the total value of the state legislators’ votes. Neither the United Progressive Alliance led by the Congress nor the National Democratic Alliance led by the BJP commands the kind of support necessary to have its nominee elected to the highest office.
As most parties are still keeping their fingers crossed, speculations are rife about who their favourites are. Some have argued that the president should be non-political, if not apolitical, as only such a person would be able to do justice to the post. The argument is flawed because India had some great Presidents, who could rise above politics, despite being politicians, and enhance the prestige of the post.
The first President, Dr Rajendra Prasad, was a dyed-in-the-wool Congressman, who showed remarkable leadership qualities when he organised relief and rehabilitation for the people of Bihar, devastated by an earthquake in 1939. He was succeeded by Dr S. Radhakrishnan, who approximated Plato’s concept of the “Philosopher King”, for his books on Indian philosophy are classics in that genre.
Among the great presidents would be Dr Zakir Hussain, an educationist par excellence, K.R. Narayanan, born an “untouchable” but won the love and respect of everyone he came across, including Prof. Harold Laski, under whom he studied, and A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, who as the 12th president earned popularity which could be the envy of any political leader anywhere in the world.
Some Presidents like Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed and Giani Zail Singh earned notoriety for blindly signing on the dotted lines during the infamous Emergency or for planning - if not conspiring - to send the government of the day packing. Mrs Patil earned a name in history as the first woman President but few would agree that she added any lustre to the office.
Whether the next president is from the Congress stable or from the Opposition ranks or is a dark horse, he should be able to command the respect of the nation. Once such a person is chosen, the nation would not have to worry what would happen if the electorate fails to elect a clear winner in the 2014 parliamentary election. For, he would be guided solely by the Constitution, which he is duty-bound to uphold at all times, and the best interests of the nation.
Far from choosing a candidate who would obey their dictates, political parties should choose candidates, who are incorrigibly incorruptible and have proven records of service to the nation, be it in politics, academics, government, business or law. While consensus is commendable, there’s no harm in having a contest if there are more candidates who fill the bill. After all, elections are of the essence in a democracy.