Come July and the nation will have a new president. With each passing day new candidates emerge and terms like political president, Dalit president, tribal president are used to describe the president. Presidential elections have undergone a change in the recent past. Conventions like that of vice-president succeeding as president have been broken. It was never a healthy practice and needed to be discontinued. India is not a monarchy where automatic succession takes place nor is the post of president a bureaucratic post for promotion.
But what could be the reason for this interest of the political parties in the post? The answer lies in the elections that are to be held in 2014, which in all probability will throw up a fractured mandate and the president will then hold the key to government formation. It would be the president's discretion, who to invite to form the government. All parties want a friendly president who will be grateful to those who anointed him.
The provisions of the Constitution are also being subverted by the political class. The Constitution provides for the election of the president. But this process is now being replaced by selection of a consensus candidate. The electoral process that follows is a mere formality. Hence, it would not be wrong to call the process as presidential selection instead of presidential election. This was not what the founders of the Constitution intended. Had this been the case, they could have provided for the nomination of the president in the Constitution itself.
Proponents of consensus often argue that, the office of president should be free from politics of any kind, little realising that the worst fights are being carried out in the name of consensus. Another provision that is being tampered with is the one related with the qualifications required for the post. The Constitution lays down rules of eligibility clearly: any eminent citizen after fulfilling basic conditions is eligible. Political parties have added further qualifications like religion, gender, caste, region etc, thereby making others, who may otherwise be more deserving ineligible for the post. Thus an unwritten reservation has crept into the office. The Constitution is not being amended in letter, but is actually being flouted in practice by the political class.
Many may argue that symbolism is needed in a diverse country like India to instill confidence in all sections of society. They should bear in mind that the president symbolises the nation and does not represent any section of society. Merit should be the only criteria for choosing the president.
We should not to be prisoners of symbolism because it does not lead to empowerment. President Pratibha Patil was chosen on consensus for her gender. The same media that is criticising her lauded the fact that a woman had occupied the chair. We should remember that we had a woman at the helm as the prime minister 45 years back. What more empowerment could a figurehead do which a real head could not?
Likewise, glowing tributes are being paid to Hamid Ansari, a possible candidate for presidency. However, many feel that he has weakened his chances after the lokpal vote when he failed to act in a non-partisan manner. It is this section which feels that had he acted in a different manner, that very day he would have emerged as one of the strongest contenders for the job.
Political parties may not admit, but it is Ansari's minority status that they feel will fetch them electoral dividends in future. If representation of minorities or other sections of society becomes the criteria for the highest office, then there are perhaps other more neglected communities might want to be represented. Since they are not electorally beneficial, they are forgotten by the political class. The day is not far, when instead of holding elections, we will soon be hanging a ‘Reserved' placard in front of Rashtrapati Bhavan.
Former president APJ Abdul Kalam's example is often pointed out to buttress the claim that consensus candidates chosen on these lines have added to the prestige of the office. What they fail to see is that Kalam's identity as a member of a minority community was submerged by his brilliance and integrity.
The office should not be the preserve of the political class alone but extend to people of eminence in other fields. An apolitical person will serve better as he will not be accused of partisanship.
Instead of selecting a consensus candidate, parties should let genuine elections take place, refrain from issuing whips and elect the most suitable person for the job, not on the criteria of religion, region, caste etc, but on merit alone. The candidate thus elected will reflect the mandate of the whole Parliament and not of any one formation.
Ranjana Khare is with the Indian Council for Research in International Economic Relations. The views expressed by the author are personal.