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First among equals

Kalam’s decision not to seek re-election is both a tribute to his statesmanship and a positive step to keep the office out of controversy, writes Pankaj Vohra.

india Updated: Jun 25, 2007 05:24 IST
Pankaj Vohra
Pankaj Vohra
Hindustan Times

President APJ Abdul Kalam’s decision not to seek re-election is both a tribute to his statesmanship and a positive step on his part to keep the august office out of political controversy. By clearly indicating that he was not keen for the top job, Kalam has ensured that the President’s office does not become a power centre.

He has averted what could have become a war between South Block (PMO) and Rashtrapati Bhavan. The Third Front, which now calls itself by a different name, is left with hardly any choice but to either abstain or split while choosing between Bhairon Singh Shekhawat (backed by the NDA) and Pratibha Patil, the UPA-Left nominee.

All hell had broken loose when the ‘people’s President’ initially issued a statement following his meeting with Third Front leaders that he was willing to enter the fray only if his victory was certain. The statement was variously interpreted. One obvious interpretation was that by agreeing to contest, Kalam was sending a signal to the Third Front to lobby for him across party lines so that his victory became a foregone conclusion even if technically the numbers were on the side of Patil.

In political circles, this willingness sent alarm bells and it was said that Kalam was openly inviting MPs and legislators to vote according to their conscience. The fear was that the President’s office would get embroiled in a major confrontation with the ruling dispensation. Poll pundits had their calculators and lists out and figured out what would happen if the MPs and legislators from the south, or those belonging to Kalam’s community, decided to back him instead of Patil. After all, the difference between the UPA-Left and allies and that of the combined Opposition is merely 1,10,000. In practical terms if a little over 55,000 votes are ‘managed’, the poll results would not be on expected lines. Kalam would have every chance of emerging victorious, at least in theory.

There were others who interpreted Kalam’s initial statement as an attempt to convey to Chandrababu Naidu (instrumental in getting him the nomination last time) that he did not wish to go out as a President who lost an election. And since his victory would depend on so many other factors, he should be spared if the majority view did not back him publicly. When it became clear that this was not to be, Kalam opted out, saving his supporters and potential vote bank a major embarrassment.

It must be understood that the President’s role is ceremonial and bound by the advice of the council of ministers. In the Westminster model, which we adopted, there can’t be two power centres. The Prime Minister is the head of the government while the President is the head of the State, and thereby the first citizen. A conflict between the two high offices is neither in the interest of any political party nor in the interest of the government and the country.

Therefore, those wanting to play politics with this basic concept are being mischievous. The Opposition, for instance, appears to be more interested in dislodging the UPA government rather than wanting the President of their choice. They know that if their presidential candidate wins, the UPA will have no moral authority to continue and the Prime Minister may be forced to quit.

The contest is now between Patil and Shekhawat. One wonders whether both Sharad Pawar and Lalu Prasad Yadav — who came out with harsh statements against Kalam for showing an inclination to contest — will do the same against Shekhawat with whom they enjoy a good personal rapport.

Second, Shekhawat must have realised during the Kalam episode, that the BJP and NDA allies were willing to abandon him if it meant getting votes across party lines for Kalam. He was obviously not the first choice, but a compulsion for the NDA and the BJP who, after having said that the presidential election will not go uncontested, have no option but to back him. Shekhawat being a seasoned player must have got several messages from the events of the week. Another point pertains to cross voting. Many political analysts and scientists feel that an election through secret ballot pre-supposes voting on the individual’s choice rather than on party lines. In practice, the voting may take place along party lines but anyone wishing to vote otherwise cannot be accused of cross voting. In 1969, Indira Gandhi was able to get V.V Giri elected by asking for a conscience vote against official Congress nominee Sanjiva Reddy. In 1967, a number of Congress MPs voted against Zakir Hussain who was the official nominee, and opted for Subba Rao, former Chief Justice of India.

It is significant that our Constitution’s founding fathers ensured that presidential polls must be held through democratic means. The three-line whip and the anti-defection law, all seen as instruments by political parties to keep their herd together in the absence of strong adherence to ideology, are not applicable in these elections. But despite all this, political propriety demands that the ruling alliance should be allowed to have its candidate elected and attempts to politicise the President’s office must stop.

To have a political person as the President is one thing, but to use the office to further a political agenda is something else. Therefore, in a contest that will ensue in the coming weeks through hard campaigning, the UPA-Left nominee — who could well become the first woman to occupy the august office — starts from the pole position. Between us.

First Published: Jun 25, 2007 00:21 IST