Who will occupy the palace on Raisina Hill?
India has had a tradition of choosing 'political' presidents, with Kalam being the lone exception.india Updated: May 29, 2007 02:04 IST
Since APJ Abdul Kalam is an accidental president, it is not surprising that he doesn't have the support of any major political party for another term.
He wasn't the first choice of any party in 2002, but made it to the palatial Rashtrapati Bhavan on New Delhi's Raisina Hill because there was no agreement within the political class on the two other candidates - then vice president Krishan Kant and Maharashtra Governor PC Alexander.
Yet, if a referendum were to be held on Saturday on another term for Kalam, there is little doubt that the unassuming aero scientist with an unconventional hairstyle will win hands down.
If anything, this disjunction between political and popular perceptions is a significant feature of today's India. It can be seen in another field as well, notably in the parliament vs judiciary debate, where the latter scores heavily over the political-legislative forum.
A major reason why a politically neutral person like Kalam seemingly has the backing of a majority of people is that the politicians have done themselves a disservice in recent years by allowing their ranks to be heavily infiltrated by people with a criminal background.
As a result, someone like Kalam is automatically the first choice of the ordinary people if only because he is not perceived either as tainted personally or so compromised by the presence of dubious characters around him that he is unable to follow the straight and narrow path.
For all his personal integrity, for instance, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has people in his cabinet, not to mention in his party or among his allies, with an unflattering record. The latest example is the induction of a minister, who is the widow of a 'mafia don' in Tamil Nadu.
So, when the general secretary of the Communist Party of India-Marxist, Prakash Karat, insists that the next president should have a political background, the impression that he creates is that, like all politicians, he will like someone in the Rashtrapati Bhavan who will not be too upset with the habit of the Indian political class to play with the rules in accordance with their partisan needs.
There have been a few occasions when Kalam refused to follow the political diktats, the most celebrated instance being the passage of the Office of Profit bill, which gave retrospective sanction to the violation of the rule against a politician holding more than one position which grants him prestige and perquisites.
But after he rejected the bill, it was sent back to him, as the constitution allows the ruling party to do, and he had to sign it to avoid creating a crisis.
How a president with a political background might have reacted to such a situation can be gauged from the act of one of his predecessors, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed (1974-77), who was roused from his sleep at the dead of night to sign the proclamation declaring Emergency rule by prime minister Indira Gandhi on June 25-26, 1975. He didn't bother to check whether the measure had cabinet approval.
Unfortunately, India has had a tradition of choosing 'political' presidents, with Kalam being the lone exception, although even in the matter of selecting governors, Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, had favoured the appointment of only 'eminent' persons.
Of course, apart from Kalam, there were two presidents - S Radhakrishnan (1962-67) and Zakir Hussain (1962-69) - who acquitted themselves with dignity because they were known more as scholars than as politicians.
They were the second and third in the line. But the first, Rajendra Prasad (1950-62), was more than a handful for Nehru, both because of his conservative views, as on the Hindu code bill relating to marriage, inheritance and women's rights, and because of his tendency to transgress the limited role ascribed to the president by the constitution.
All their successors were out-and-out politicians, with VV Giri (1969-74) and N Sanjeeva Reddy (1977-82) playing a factional role in the break up of the Congress party. Giri was chosen by Indira Gandhi as her nominee to stand against Reddy, who was seen as a candidate of her opponents in the Congress.
Giri's victory was accompanied by the Congress split of 1969. But Reddy had his revenge when Indira Gandhi lost the 1977 elections and her opponents, led by Morarji Desai, won a famous victory and installed Reddy as the president.
But if Reddy belonged to the anti-Indira camp, his successor, Giani Zail Singh (1982-87), was described by The Times of London as Indira Gandhi's 'poodle' for his observation that he wouldn't mind sweeping the floor if the prime minister wanted him to do so.
It is another matter that he subsequently fell out with Rajiv Gandhi, who was Indira's successor as the prime minister. But notwithstanding his appellation of Giani (knowledgable), Zail Singh's tenure didn't bring any glory to the office of president.
If virtually all the presidents had a Congress past till 2002, the reason was the Congress' dominant position in the political field. Kalam is the sole exception in being neither a politician nor a Congressman.
That was probably why his name was not initially considered by the political class when the time came for choosing a successor to KR Narayanan (1997-02). The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was torn at the time between prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's preference for Krishan Kant, a former Congressman, and the party's choice of PC Alexander, a former bureaucrat.
Since there was no consensus - which is the preferred mode - on either of them, Kalam's name was put forward by the BJP. And since he had acquired a countrywide reputation because of his role in the testing of a nuclear weapon in 1998, there was no question of any party opposing him. Besides, as a Muslim, his selection was the politically correct one for the politicians.
Similarly, Narayanan had faced no opposition because he was a Dalit. However, his Congress background made the BJP unwilling to offer him a second term. In addition, since no president after Rajendra Prasad has had a second term, a convention has developed against it.
Not surprisingly, Kalam is being denied a second term on this ground. But the main reason why the politicians are against him is that he is nobody's fool.
There is no unanimity yet on who will occupy the 340-room palace on Raisina Hill, which is larger than Louis XIV's Versailles. Among the frontrunners from the Congress side of the fence, which includes the Left, is External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee, who seems to have edged out Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee of the CPI-M, who was initially the Marxists' candidate.
Besides, the names of Minister for Power Sushil Kumar Shinde, a Dalit, and Karan Singh, a former Maharaja of Kashmir, have been doing the rounds.
But all of them face a stiff challenge from Vice President Bhairon Singh Shekhawat of BJP, who surprisingly scored a high 30.3 percent vote in his favour in an opinion poll.
Kalam of course topped the list with 43.6 per cent while Infosys chief N.R. Narayan Murthy came third with 18.5 per cent.
Clearly, it is going to be a well-contested battle.
First Published: May 26, 2007 10:40 IST