After many weeks of consultations and speculation, the United Progressive Alliance has settled on Pratibha Patil as its presidential candidate. A long-time Congress party functionary, Ms Patil has been endorsed by the entire alliance. She will be the main contender against Vice-President Bhairon Singh Shekhawat who is contesting as an independent, though it is well-known that he has the backing of the National Democratic Alliance.
Just what makes for a good or great president is not easy to say. Some, like Rajendra Prasad, S. Radhakrishnan, Zakir Hussain and S.D. Sharma, were already people of considerable repute when they took office. They also had the glow of being participants in our freedom movement. Others, like K.R. Narayanan and A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, grew into the position through the way they managed to uphold the prestige of the high office. Both were able to tackle tricky issues with panache. A few, however, have been forgettable personalities for reasons that need not detain us here.
Some of what a person occupying this high office needs is, of course, clear. He or she must be above reproach. People set much higher standards for their leaders than they set for themselves. But for the First Citizen, the bar is all the higher. While the president may be a great educationist, scientist, or social worker, he or she must, above all, be a person of mature political judgment. This is especially crucial in this era where major political parties are finding it difficult to command a majority in the Lok Sabha by themselves. While in office, presidents are bound to act on the advice of their council of ministers. But, they are on their own when, after a general election, the time comes to select a person to take office at the head of the council as prime minister.
The President of the Republic of India is our first citizen and Supreme Commander of the armed forces. On paper, his, and now possibly her, role is largely ceremonial since real power is vested in the hands of a prime minister who heads a council of ministers. Yet, as history has shown, our presidents have been neither figureheads nor mere symbols. Their role has become all the more important in our media age where the government’s words and actions are always under intense scrutiny. And the nuances of what the president chooses to say or do in certain circumstances shapes public discourse. This has given the Presidents enormous moral power that exceeds the circumscribed authority they may have under the Constitution.