Sunday March 25, 2012
Who will be chosen as India’s next president?
By Coomi Kapoor
HAVING flunked the recent Assembly election test, the United Progress Alliance Government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh faces its next big challenge in the upcoming presidential contest.
The successor to President Pratibha Patil is to be elected in June. The problem is, the ruling coalition does not have the requisite numbers to get its own candidate to tenant the Rashtrapati Bhawan – an opulent mansion occupied by the Viceroy of India till Independence – for the next five years.
A slew of regional parties hold the key to the selection of the next Head of the Republic. The ruling alliance would have to do some hard bargaining with the unattached groups which command a sizeable share in the electoral college.
Though the institution of the Indian president is akin to that of the British monarch, there are enough grey areas in the Constitution which allow him to exercise discretion.
Being the titular head of the State, his role is largely ceremonial. All executive decisions are taken in his name, even though in actual practice the real power vests with the prime minister who is the head of the executive. However, for the smooth functioning of the Government it is important that the president and the prime minister are on the same wavelength.
On several matters, India’s first prime minister and president were not on the same page and this led to a lot of tension in the initial years of the Republic. More famously, President Rajinder Prasad did not want the State to interfere in the traditional and unwritten Hindu personal laws regarding marriage, succession, adoption, maintenance, etc.
Nehru was a strong votary for codifying these laws in order to ensure progress and unity in the larger Hindu community, sharply divided then, as now, by mind-boggling differences of caste and rituals. Eventually, Nehru had his way. And Prasad had to give assent to the Hindu Code Bill passed by the Parliament.
Any confusion on the president’s power to frustrate the will of the Parliament as expressed through the Cabinet was removed when Indira Gandhi amended the Constitution in the mid-70s.
A few years later, another constitutional amendment provided that the president can return a Bill passed by Parliament for reconsideration but only once. When sent by the Cabinet a second time, he has to per force approve it.
Since the founding of the Republic, India has had 12 presidents, with only the first, Rajinder Prasad, getting two full five-year terms, from 1952 to 1962, though against the wishes of Nehru. Prasad, like Nehru, was a veteran of the freedom movement and enjoyed the support of a large section of the then ruling Congress Party.
Giani Zail Singh, a middle-level Congress politician, was made president by Indira Gandhi in the belief that he would act as a “yes” man. He openly clashed with her son, Rajiv Gandhi, when the latter succeeded his mother following her assassination in 1984.
Relations between the president and the prime minister were so strained that at one point Singh explored the constitutionality of dismissing the Gandhi government. In the end, the acrimony was settled with both sides accommodating each other.
The current incumbent, Patil, assumed office in July 2007. A regional politician, she was picked essentially because no woman had been the president before her. Patil is due to retire this July. As per the law, the presidential election would be scheduled a month earlier to ensure a smooth transition.
Since the UPA lacks the numbers to elect its own candidate, political circles are already speculating on the best consensus candidate.
Clearly, the UPA’s major concern is to ensure that a candidate chosen by the Opposition National Democratic Alliance is not elected the next Head of the Republic. The UPA has a 31% vote-share, the NDA 28% whereas the remainder is with unattached groups.
Among those tipped as possible successors are Union Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee and even that of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Some observers have speculated that Singh could be given a relatively light charge since he has often floundered in managing a rather cantankerous coalition.
Mukherjee’s experience and political management is said to be so strong that many ruling party members lament that he would have been better placed to handle a difficult coalition. However, he reportedly does not enjoy the unstinted trust of Congress president Sonia Gandhi and, therefore, may not attain his prime ministerial ambition.
A competent and shrewd politician, Mukherjee himself may prefer to hold an important portfolio in government rather than become a figurehead president.
Indeed, the election of the president of India is still wide open with the opposition circles toying with the idea of sponsoring the former President A. P. J. Abdul Kalam for a second term. President Patil had succeeded Kalam.
Thoroughly apolitical, the former space scientist has steered himself clear of all controversies while espousing universal causes, such as environment protection, child education and healthcare.
Admittedly, the president plays a crucial role at the time of government-formation in the era of coalition politics when no single party gets a clear majority. There are a few residuary powers which a president not well-disposed towards the incumbent government can always exercise to embarrass it. Hence the anxiety of the ruling UPA to enlist the support of like-minded groups so that it can have its own man to occupy the country’s most expensive and luxurious mansion on Raisina Hill.