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The president can neither be an adversary to the prime minister nor his puppet

In a parliamentary democracy the president doesn’t run the government that’s run in his name. As the country’s first citizen, he belongs to all Indians.

opinion Updated: Jun 27, 2017 12:38 IST
president,president elections,rashtrapati bhavan
The Election Commission has notified the July 17 election for the fifteenth occupant of the Rashtrapati Bhavan(Ravi Choudhary/HT PHOTO)

Given the constitutional scheme under which the president of our republic acts on the advice of the Cabinet, it’s only fair, regardless of the Opposition’s efforts to set up a contest, that the office is occupied by a person of the prime minister’s choice. One cannot, for healthy functioning of the affairs of the State, envisage a president who’s a total puppet or has an adversarial attitude towards the elected regime.

In order to not repeat history as contretemps, lessons must be drawn from the seventies when Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed became Indira Gandhi’s rubber stamp during the Emergency; the other extreme being the Zail Singh presidency a decade later that tacitly threw its weight behind the Opposition gunning for Rajiv Gandhi over suspect defence contracts.

The Election Commission has notified the July 17 election for the 15th president. For its part, the ruling BJP has constituted a three-member panel for consultations without, of course, revealing its hand on the possible candidature. Even the Congress-led Opposition initiative has been about tossing names around. They can’t obviously decide to oppose or support the official candidate without knowing the government’s mind.

Historically, the president has had broad ideological compatibility with the PM. One manageable exception in the early years of Independence was the centre-right Rajendra Prasad to the centre-left Nehru. The thought affinity prerequisite was generally met. For in a parliamentary democracy the president doesn’t run the government that’s run in his name. At least on paper, he ceases to be party-aligned. As the country’s first citizen, he belongs to all Indians.

The 1969 election was the closest the PM’s rivals could get to installing an adversarial president. A neophyte then, Indira Gandhi refused to be so tamed. She fought the powerful Congress syndicate to ensure their candidate Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy’s defeat at the hands of VV Giri.

The latter won on the basis of the second preference vote; a run-off that hasn’t since been repeated. What carried the day for Giri was Indira’s call to legislators for a conscience vote in the secret ballot.

The wheel turned full circle in 1977 when Reddy became the first (and only) President to enter office unopposed. Indira then was out of power; Morarji Desai the PM.

A contest will again be inevitable if the ruling side’s candidate does not inspire optimal confidence at a time the Opposition, besides raring to flaunt unity and strength, perceives danger to constitutional rule from the NDA’s Hindutva plank. The BJP can defang its rivals with a candidature befitting the weighty office. That’ll also keep the campaign clean — unlike the 2007 election of Pratibha Devisingh Patil. Her 12th presidency based more on loyalty than merit was forever mired in controversy.

If the government is indeed serious about a consensus, the model could be APJ Abdul Kalam’s 2002 elevation. The venerated scientist wasn’t the first choice of AB Vajpayee who wanted Vice President Krishan Kant moved to the presidential quarters.

Andhra chief minister Chandrababu Naidu, whose outside support to Vajpayee was his veritable lifeline, had lobbied hard for Kant who was Governor earlier of the TDP-ruled state. The proposal found favour with the Congress but ran foul with a powerful BJP faction. The naysayers considered the one-time ‘Young Turk’ too independent-minded for comfort.

Kalam’s name that Naidu subsequently proposed in tandem with the Samajwadi Party was finalised after an agreement could not be reached with the Congress on Vajpayee’s second choice: Maharashtra Governor PC Alexander who was principal secretary of Indira Gandhi but had uneasy ties with Rajiv Gandhi.

NDA-I had lacked in the electoral college the near-majority now commanded by the Narendra Modi regime. It was Kalam’s stature that helped the Vajpayee dispensation garner support from parties that weren’t part of the ruling front. Backed by the SP, the “missile man” cruised home when even the Congress opted for him against the CPM-backed Capt Lakshmi Sahgal.

Veteran Marxist HS Surjeet was livid. His famed influence over Sonia Gandhi did not work; the Congress backing whole hog the celebrity technocrat from the minority community.

An encore of 2002 would reduce chasms in a polity plagued by distrust. That is, if both sides think out of the box, beyond partisan politics.

Follow the author on Twitter @VinodSharmaView

First Published: Jun 15, 2017 15:40 IST