As the race for the President of India slated for later this year gains momentum, frenzied lobbying among political parties is on the rise and the list of possible candidates is growing longer. Names being bandied around include finance minister Pranab Mukherjee, Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar, Vice-President Hamid Ansari and ex-president APJ Abdul Kalam. But who among these worthies is the right person? What is the quintessential prerequisite that should dictate our final choice? More pointedly, is a political antecedent an asset or a liability?
The President of India is the head of the State with titular authority. The President is bound for the greater part by the advice of the Union Cabinet but reserves the right to exercise his discretion in shaky situations that face a hung verdict or a lameduck prime minister.
For nearly four decades after Independence, India was for all intents and purpose a single-party democracy in which the Congress monolith was consistently returned to power with a comfortable parliamentary majority that did not call for challenging binary decisions making the role of a president practically redundant.
However, in an era of hung verdicts, coalition governments and murky political manoeuvrings, the role of a president assumes importance. Such fluid settings demand the choice of an impartial president to ensure fair play and oversee smooth transitions of political power.
A political background can be a crippling baggage or deft experience depending on one's perspective. Not to say that a politician with integrity cannot subsume past loyalties to evolve into an exemplary president. But more often than not the tug of past affinity proves overwhelming forcing individuals into parochial positions as indicated by the actions of, at least, one former president.
KR Narayanan, our 10th President was a man of impeccable integrity and a stickler for rules. But his presidential decrees, though technically correct, at times conveyed an impression of unequivocal partisanship; an attitude undoubtedly fostered by his long association with the Congress.
In 1998, when the BJP emerged as the single largest party in a hung verdict, the right approach for President Narayanan would have been to invite AB Vajpayee (leader of the single largest party) to form the government in accordance with the precedence set by two former presidents, R Venkataraman and Shankar Dayal Sharma with the proviso that Vajpayee demonstrate his majority on the floor of the House, the gold standard stipulated by the Supreme Court in the Bommai judgement of 1994. However, Narayanan chose to place an extraordinary and unusual precondition: Vajpayee was asked to furnish written affidavits to prove the NDA's majority prior to the extension of an invitation; a decision seen by some as a stalling tactic to win time for the Congress to coordinate its own claim to power.
Again, when the Vajpayee government was felled by a single controversial vote, Narayanan's subsequent actions raised eyebrows. First, he rushed post haste to invite the Congress that had barely 140 seats to explore the possibility of forming the government, provided generous extensions for the Congress to cobble together a majority which it couldn't and then proceeded to dissolve Parliament without giving Vajpayee another chance at government formation which could have saved the nation an expensive general election. Likewise a president with NDA leanings may prove detrimental to the Congress.
The President of India stands out as a beacon of hope, stability and rectitude in a political terrain that is becoming increasingly capricious and unpredictable. Even acts of subtle partisanship can have an adverse impact by tilting the balance in favour of the wrong contender in a dicey equation resulting in a gross miscarriage of justice. That is what we need to guard against in making our final choice. Therefore, it is imperative that we choose a president bereft of a political umbilical cord: an apolitical one.
Vivek Gumaste is a US-based academic and political commentator. The views expressed by the author are personal.