A meeting of the Congress Parliamentary Board in Bangalore on July 11, 1969, set the stage for the mother of all poll battles for the President of India’s chair.
The ‘syndicate faction’; in the Congress, led by party president S Nijalingappa, decided to field Neelam Sanjiva Reddy to succeed Zakir Husain, who had died. Prime minister Indira Gandhi countered the rival group by suggesting the name of Dalit leader Jagjivan Ram. Nijalingappa put the issue to vote and carried the day with four votes in favour of Reddy and two against him.
Acting President V V Giri announced his decision to fight as an independent. Indira, meanwhile, did not let the old guard get any sense of her plans. A wary Nijalingappa appealed to the Swatantra Party and the Jana Sangh, which had fielded former finance minister C D Deshmukh, to cast their second-preference votes for Reddy. Days before polling, Indira gave a call to Congress leaders to “vote according to [their] conscience”. The fight was so close that no one got past the requisite cutoff in the first round. Giri won after a counting of second-preference votes, polling 4.20 lakh against the required 4,18,169; Reddy tallied 4.05 lakh, Deshmukh 1.13 lakh. This election became a precursor to the split in the Congress.
Prasad, pitched by Patel
Notwithstanding constant calls by parties for a consensus choice for President, a unanimous election is a rarity. Rajendra Prasad was elected unopposed for a brief period, 1950 to 1952. He faced opponents in the subsequent elections in 1952 and 1957.
Though the 1950 election did not witness a technical fight, it was marked by deft outmanoeuvring of PM Jawaharlal Nehru by his deputy Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru were in favour of governor-general C Rajagopalachari continuing as President, since Nehru was comfortable working with him. Patel favoured Prasad, a right-wing conservative like him. Prasad, nudged by Patel, rallied support from Congress MPs who were not receptive to Rajaji’s candidature since he had opposed the Quit India movement. On October 5, 1949, Nehru, unaware of Patel’s plans, convened a meeting of Congress MPs to push through Rajaji’s name. His proposal met with a hostile response. Nehru had to abandon the move and Prasad’s nomination became fait accompli. Nehru got over the embarrassment and himself proposed Prasad’s name on January 23, 1950, seconded by Patel. Prasad was elected without a contest.
It was not so on the next two occasions. Prasad had to face a fight with K T Shah, a member of the Constituent Assembly, to continue in 1952. He polled over 5 lakh to Shah’s 93,000. In 1957, Prasad defeated Hari Ram in a token contest: 4.6 lakh votes to 2,672. Prasad called it a day in 1962, his 12 years being the longest stint by any President.
Four sweeps and a no-contest
Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, a widely acclaimed scholar, had been waiting in the wings for 10 years as vice-president. Radhakrishnan won with 5½ lakh votes against his nearest rival Hari Ram, who got 6,341. He served from 1962 to 1967.
Zakir Hussain (1967-69) was the first Muslim President. Held in the backdrop of a setback for the Congress in the Lok Sabha polls (283 seats), the presidential poll threw up a real contest. Hussain won with 4.71 lakh votes while Opposition nominee Koka Subbarao, a former CJI, secured 3.64 lakh.
Giri’s retirement in 1974 was followed by the election of Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed. The Congress, under Indira, had retrieved a lot of the ground lost to the Opposition. Ahmed romped home with 7.66 lakh votes. Tridib Chaudhuri, the Opposition candidate, got 1.89 lakh. Ahmed was the second Muslim elected to the post. Like Hussain, Ahmed too died in office. He was the President who proclaimed the Emergency at Indira’s bidding.
Indira had blocked Reddy’s prospects in 1969; her opponents, now in power, took revenge by fielding him for the presidency in 1977. PM Morarji Desai wanted danseuse Rukmini Devi Arundale for President but she declined; Reddy won unopposed.
In 1982, Indira, now back in office, picked Zail Singh for President. He won with 7.54 lakh votes while Opposition nominee H R Khanna, a former CJI, got 2.83 lakh. Singh rather indiscreetly remarked: “If my leader had said I should pick up a broom and be a sweeper, I would have done that.” Indira might have thought that her choice would go down well with the Sikh masses and help her check the Khalistan movement, but the movement got more intense, leading to Operation Bluestar and the assassination of Indira herself.
Congress backs 3 more winners
Indira’s son, Rajiv Gandhi, nominated vice-president R Venkataraman in 1987. Given the vast parliamentary majority he secured in the aftermath of Indira’s assassination, Rajiv got Venkataraman elected with 7.40 lakh votes; the Opposition candidate, former judge V R Krishna Iyer, got 2.82 lakh.
Shankar Dayal Sharma, a Nehru-Gandhi family loyalist, succeeded Venkataraman, defeating the Opposition’s George Gilbert Swell, veteran MP, by 6.76 lakh votes to 3.46 lakh.
T N Seshan, having earned appeal for efforts to cleanse the electoral system and now retired, threw his hat in the ring in the 1997 presidential election. The Congress put up vice-president K R Narayanan, a Dalit, when Inder Kumar Gujaral (Janata Dal) was heading a minority government. Narayanan trounced Seshan, backed by the Shiv Sena, by 9.56 lakh votes to 50,631.
Kalam: Congress goes with BJP
The NDA, led by prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, had a slight edge in the electoral college, but it was a fragile multi-party alliance. Narayanan, hoping for a second term, enjoyed the support of the Congress, the Left and regional parties, but Vajpayee did not agree. The name of vice president Krishan Kant gained currency, but the Shiv Sena and some BJP leaders proposed former governor P C Alexander, which the Opposition rejected. Vajpyaee came up with the name of missile scientist A P J Abdul Kalam, the Samajwadi Party’s Mulayam Singh Yadav backed him, and TDP, AIADMK and BSP followed. The Congress too came along later. The Left put up Lakshmi Sahgal, whom Kalam defeated 9.23 lakh to 1.07 lakh.
The UPA years
The BJP was keen on giving Kalam a second term but no support was forthcoming from other parties. Pratibha Patil was elected the first woman President, backed by the Congress, its coalition partners and Left parties. The contest was marked by many allegations against Patil, including an attempt to shield her brother in a murder case. But she won easily with two-thirds of the votes, polling 6.38 lakh to defeat vice-president B S Shekhawat (3.31 lakh), fielded by the BJP.
Congress leader Pranab Mukherjee had canvassed so effectively for himself within the party in 2012 that there was no stopping him. As the Congress announced his name, NDA partners JD(U) and Shiv Sena supported him. The BJP backed P A Sangma; Mukherjee won by 7.14 lakh votes to 3.16 lakh.
This time, it remains to be seen if the BJP’s outreach to the Opposition leads to unanimity or a contest.