The Great Indian Presidential Conundrum

Posted on May 29, 2012 in Politics

By Jai Prakash Ojha:

The forthcoming Presidential elections in July 2012 has already kicked off a lot of dust but till now, everything appears to be in the realm of speculation, with both the major political fronts- the Congress led UPA and the BJP led NDA, holding their cards close to their chests. Constitutionally speaking, in a west minister form of parliamentary democracy as prevalent in India, the de facto executive vests in the council of ministers, headed by the PM while the President is merely the de jure, ceremonial head of state, a position upheld by the highest judiciary. Despite this, why is the impending election raising such hue and cry? The reasons are not difficult to conjecture.

This election is being viewed as a precursor to the likely realignment of political forces, ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. With a string of electoral defeats in the State Legislative elections throughout the length and breadth of the country, the political space of both the Congress and BJP has shrunk rapidly. Added to it is the rise of the regional satraps, and the scenario becomes fluid. Voices of dissent are already brewing in both the UPA and the NDA, as the allies are getting more and more assertive and belligerent. These regional entities are embedded in identity politics, often thriving on regional issues and whipping up regional passions when needed and lacking a national perspective. They are not averse to striking out tough deals with the national parties, in lieu of their support in the coming elections. The nature of deals can vary — from debt loan relief to ‘Special State’ status, from a share in power at the Centre to the closure of CBI or IT cases against them. Of late, some of the regional satraps have become over ambitious and are nurturing grand delusions of assuming national roles as the forces of the Left and Right continue to tear the social fabric of the nation apart, abetted by the caste, religious and regional rabble rousers, culminating in increasing incidences of rifts and fractures in our polity. Both the Congress and the BJP are not in a position to ensure the victory of their candidates, and it is here that the regional outfits can tilt the balance in their favour. In the backdrop of acrimonious exchanges between the Centre and States on issues relating to federalism, the possibility of the regional forum propping up its own candidate can’t be ruled out.

There is a strong possibility of 2014 elections throwing up a hung House, resulting in changing political permutations and combinations. In the light of these developments, the role of the President becomes crucial because he enjoys discretion to ask any party to form the government. His prerogative in this matter is unhindered by the limitations of parliamentary democracy. Remember how Mr. Venkatraman asked BJP to have a first go at government formation, on account of being the largest party, thus setting a healthy precedent and disappointing Congress in the process?

Now, it would not be out of context to take a look at names of possible candidates doing the rounds, the views regarding their candidature and the larger issues being raised due to ongoing debates and discussions veering around the President. The name of Mr. Pranab Mukherjee as the likely Congress candidate is seen as a reward for his loyalty, and also a sort of compensation for the denial of PM’s chair to him. His name also figured in 2007 elections, but he was considered too valued a person to be dispensed by the Congress at that time. The situation has not changed and even now, he is the fulcrum around which the wheels of governance move, the chief troubleshooter of the party and the public relations manager. His equation with alliance partners and opposition leaders and the respect that he commands all across the political spectrum give him a good chance to buttress his claims but will 10, Janpath relent owing to its trust deficit with him due to his vaunting ambitions? Referred to as one of the best PMs we never have had by no less a person than Mr. Arun Jaitley, it is a pity that loyalty is being cited as a reason for his possible elevation. This raises a basic question — should loyalty determine the choice? Is the Presidential position a reward of sorts? If Pranab Da is made President, it should be on account of his distinguished political career and knowledge of governance, not on extraneous considerations like loyalty or compensation. After all haven’t we witnessed the shining example of loyalty when F.A. Ahmed colluded with Mrs. Gandhi to impose the Emergency, throwing constitutional norms to the wind? Haven’t we seen a Zail Singh at the helm of affairs in Rashtrapati Bhawan or a Pratibha Patil there, on the ostensible pretext of being a woman, the reality being different? Why is that every ruling party wants to have a pliant, laid-back President.

Take the case of PA Sangma. He wants to be the President because no ST has reached there before and hence, being a ST; he has more rights than others. India is peopled by multitude of communities, castes, sub-castes and religions; and the demands of electoral politics has led to a perpetual struggle among them for a share in scarce national resources and entitlements or to gain a foothold in power sharing. Reservations in jobs and legislatures are okay, but to assert right over an institution like office of the President, and that too on the basis of community is simply outrageous. It is tantamount to retreating into the past, freezing existing social configurations in their current form under the garb of promoting inclusiveness in our democracy. It is high time the institutional sanctity of this post is safeguarded, and the feeling that this post is given on the basis of caste/religion/community needs to be dispelled. The conscience of the entire nation was shocked when a political party boasted that it had made Dalit a President, the occasion being the elevation of Mr. KR Narayanan to this office. The towering political stature and intellectual genius of Narayanan didn’t matter to that party. Just take a look at how KR Narayanan expressed his disapproval of the State Government in the handling of the riots in Gujarat in a letter to Mr. Vajpayee, the then PM, or how he pitched for the inclusion of eligible persons of the marginalized, depressed communities (read Schedule castes) in the higher Judiciary. Attaching the ‘Dalit’ tag with him is akin to demeaning him and his August office.

Dr. Hamid Ansari is also a frontrunner in the race and seems to have the backing of parties, harping on Muslim votes. The practice of “upgrading” Vice Presidents to Presidents seems to have evaporated, and this can be seen in the cases of Mr. Krishna Kant and Mr. Shekhawat, who went into political oblivion after relinquishing Vice Presidency. The talk of political and non-political President is humbug because in the past, we have had non-political Presidents like Dr. Kalam and Dr. Radhakrishnan who did their jobs admirably. The kind of functions that a President performs is not rocket science and moreover, there is a battery of advisers to assist him. Didn’t the nation see Kalam returning the Office of Profit bill to the Council of Ministers for reconsideration? However, political or non-political does not matter — what matters is the quality of the person making the decision. Absence of political background does not insulate one from charges of partisanship as even today, Kalam is regarded as one who put an end to Sonia’s political aspirations for PMship. In the rough and tumble of politics, charges of partisanship will always be there. Even a stickler to norms, Narayanan was not spared as he had a long association with Congress. Nilam Sanjiv Reddy was held responsible for chaining Jagjivan Ram’s Prime Ministerial ambitions and paving the way for return of Congress post-Emergency.

Coming to the concluding part, how should be our President? We know the constraints under which a President functions, but more than the office, it’s the personality of the incumbent which matters. The nation wants a President of the highest personal integrity, who adheres to the spirit of the constitution, rather than its letter and acts as the custodian of our Constitution and “conscience-keeper” of the nation. He should have the guts to speak his mind out on matters that concern us and should not hesitate to send the bills back to the cabinet for reconsideration, in case of disagreement. In this 24X7 channel age, public opinion and an ever-vigilant media deter the PM from riding roughshod over the opinion of the President. What is needed is not an ostrich-like approach from the President, but intent, on his part, to engage with the de facto Executive on urgent issues, without appearing to encroach upon its domain. Fractured polity requires impartiality on the part of President. He has not only to be neutral, but also appear to be so because in a democracy, perception matters much. In a nutshell — s/he has to be like Caesar’s wife, above suspicion.

[box bg=”#fdf78c” color=”#000″]About the author:

Ojha Jai Prakash is a contributor at Youth Ki Awaaz and writes often about the socio-political scenario in the country. To read more of his posts click here.[/box]