India’s season of presidential elections has been on for the past few weeks with former Bihar governor Ram Nath Kovind making his way to the Rashtrapati Bhawan and Pranab Mukherjee bidding farewell to it after a successful full term. The office of the President, in which rests the highest authority in the country and also a position of glory, is one of the most prominent residues of the long period of British rule in India, and yet in many ways, is in marked opposition to it. The Presidential Office in India, akin to that of the British monarch and also representative of the democracy embedded in the country’s Constitution, is a product of a long drawn out period of toil by members of the Constituent Assembly, poring over constitutions of countries across the world, to come up with a political and civil framework, best suited for the gigantic needs of Independent India.
When India became independent she had initially given dominion status within the commonwealth nations. King George VI remained its head, and his representative authority in India was vested in the office of the Governor General. Consequently, under the leadership of B R Ambedkar, the Constituent Assembly went on to frame the Constitution, which on coming into force in January 1950, making India a republic.
In the process of drafting the constitution of the country, the assembly was soon met with the question of the head of the state. As chairman of the assembly, Dr Rajendra Prasad had made the following observation of the office of the president.
“We considered whether we should adopt the American model or the British model where we have a hereditary King who is the fountain of all honour and power, but who does not actually enjoy any power. All the power rests in the legislature to which the Ministers are responsible. We have had to reconcile the position of an elected President with an elected legislature and in doing so, we have adopted more or less the position of the British monarch for the President. His position is that of a constitutional President, Then we come to the Ministers. They are of course responsible to the legislature and tender advice to the President who is bound to act according to that advice. Although there are no spécifié provisions, as far as I know, in the Constitution itself making it binding on the President to accept the advice of the ministers, it is hoped that the convention under which in England the King acts always on the advice of his ministers will be established in this country also.”
When the Constitution makers put together the document, they did not stick to any particular model, but drew widely from a large number of constitutions with the idea of picking the best features of every country’s administrative framework. The office of the President is perhaps the best illustration of this fact. It is an unusual blend of the British Crown and the American President. On one hand, in their attempt to break away from the Crown’s rule, the Constitution makers opted for the American system of an elective head. At the same time, the post of the President was made almost powerless along the British model.
Soon after a debate arose on the nature of election procedure to select the president. When the draft was being formed, some members of the assembly asked for direct election of the president, on the ground that would bring about a sense of unity in the country. There were others who believed that the electoral college consisting of members of the Parliament and of the Legislative Assemblies would not sufficiently represent the people’s will.
However, the Constituent Assembly did not accept the arguments and went ahead with the indirect form of election for the presidential office. While providing the rationale behind why an indirect election is preferable, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru said the following:
“The framers of the Indian Constitution wanted to emphasise the ministerial character of the Government that power really resided in the Ministry and in the Legislature and not in the President as such . ..Now, therefore, if we had an election by adult franchise and yet did not give him any real powers, it might become slightly anomalous.”
He further added that a direct election would lead to an extraordinary expense of time, energy and money without any adequate result.
Nehru’s arguments favouring indirect elections were further reinforced by the reasoning of B R Ambedkar. He made three important points on the matter. First, the size of the electorate in India being 158.5 million, as against the 75 million in America would make it difficult to adopt adult suffrage in electing the president. Second, he mentioned that the country lacked sufficient administrative machinery to carry out an election procedure of this nature. Third, Ambedkar argued that the President of India is simply a figurehead and has no real powers to execute and so a direct election for his position is not necessary.
“I, therefore, submit that, having regard to the size of the electorate, the paucity of administrative machinery, necessary to manage elections on such a vast scale and that the President does not possess any of the executive or administrative powers which the President of the United States possesses, it is unnecessary to go into the question of adult suffrage and to provide for the election of the President on that basis.” noted Ambedkar.
Another reason cited for an indirectly elected president was that an electoral campaign on the part of the president would lead to electoral excitement and party feelings which is unnecessary for being in power independently.