In a rare departure from its norm, the government has reached out to the Opposition on a significant issue, the presidential election. It is a commendable gesture, but perhaps it was taken too late in the day. The election is only a month away and names of the candidates are yet unknown. The ruling alliance is expected to announce its candidate and file nomination papers on June 23. And the consultative process which it has initiated with Opposition parties may actually delay the selection of their candidate. The name of Gopalkrishna Gandhi has been informally floated, and it was assumed that the Opposition knew its mind, but the opening of consultations invites a change of mind.
In the meantime, the lack of clarity on candidates is unsettling and the floating of candidates by dint of individual enterprise confuses the issue. Given that the NDA is in a position to have its way in the selection of the president, the reluctance to be transparent about its choice of candidate is unsettling. The president intervenes at crucial times to influence the political tenor of the day — consider how sharply the presidencies of Zail Singh and A.P.J. Abdul Kalam may be contrasted — and there is public interest in the person who may inherit the office from Pranab Mukherjee. Announcing candidacies early would allow the electoral college to get a sense of the people, so to speak, enabling its constituents to make better voting choices. But the Congress, the left and other Opposition groups were contacted just hours before their second meeting on the question of the presidency. Unfortunately, the NDA seems to be following in the footsteps of the UPA, which had sprung Pratibha Patil, then a regional Congress leader, upon the electoral college at the last minute. The opaque decision-making prevented any broad debate over the choice and made her selection a fait accompli.
The change of guard at Rashtrapati Bhavan is happening at a time when relations with Pakistan are at a low, the US has an identity crisis and the geopolitical situation in Asia is evolving rapidly. The armed forces come into prominence in times of uncertainty and the role of their supreme commander assumes salience. In addition, a polarised polity where unrests and anxieties have become everyday realities, and where institutions are perceived to be under attack, requires the attentions of a statesman who stands taller than the political system. As India stands at a juncture, politically and geopolitically, it is important to choose the right president. But it is equally important to make that choice transparently, so that the new incumbent enjoys widespread confidence.