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Playing presidential politics

Electing a president was not always a fragile numbers game. A look back at earlier contests

Written by Inder Malhotra |
April 27, 2012 2:46:40 am

Electing a president was not always a fragile numbers game. A look back at earlier contests

Unlike in 2007,the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance is in no position to install its nominee in Rashtrapati Bhavan this time round. This would have been the position even if the UPA were still a united and cohesive entity. But that is far from being the case,as West Bengal’s chief minister and Trinamool Congress leader,mercurial Mamata Banerjee,has demonstrated so amply. Nor can anyone be sure about what the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) will do.

Another important and influential Congress ally,the Nationalist Congress Party chief,Sharad Pawar,has publicly served notice that the next president should be a “non-political” person,a euphemism for someone who is not a member or close associate of the Congress. Pawar has also announced that his party,the NCP,hasn’t projected the candidature of its member and former Lok Sabha speaker,P. A. Sangma,who figures among the nearly dozen names that are doing the rounds.

Overriding all this is the impact on the impending presidential poll of the Congress party’s rout and the spectacular victory of Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party in the assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh,the most populous and politically key state. Of all the regional parties ruling various states,the SP has the largest voting strength in the electoral college that would choose the next president.

Until Tuesday,in the midst of brisk jockeying as well as speculation about the race for Rashtrapati Bhavan,the impression was that Mulayam and his party wanted to bring back A.P.J Abdul Kalam to Rashtrapati Bhavan for the second time. What lent credence to this was that,in 2002,it was Mulayam who had suggested the distinguished defence scientist’s name to bring about a compromise between the then ruling combination,the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance and the Congress,the principal opposition party at that time. In 2007,the SP leader had tried unsuccessfully to get a second term for Kalam.

Now,however,it is crystal clear that the situation is entirely different. Reliable reports suggest that Mulayam is trying to promote,tentatively at least,his own candidature. This introduces an altogether new and intriguing element to the state of play. Technically,it is an alluring thought that if all regional parties unite behind a regional leader they would become a formidable force that can perhaps keep both the mainstream parties at bay. But state-specific conflicts make this prospect virtually impossible. Mulayam and Mayawati of the Bahujan Samaj Party in UP,AIADMK and DMK in Tamil Nadu or Mamata and the Marxists in West Bengal would never sup together.

So,unless there is a broad consensus across the political spectrum,the ultimate outcome would depend on which side is able to mobilise greater support among the regional parties ensconced in power in major states. According to statements emanating from senior but nameless BJP leaders,the main opposition party seems inclined to prefer contest to consensus because it sees the presidential election as the run-up to the parliamentary poll in 2014. Yet,this party,like the Congress,is still keeping its cards close to its chest.

Come to think of it,behind all the confabulations,lobbying and speculation,so far only one political grouping,the Rashtriya Janata Dal,has committed itself to a particular candidate. Its leader,Lalu Prasad,has categorically suggested that Vice President Hamid Ansari should be the next incumbent of Rashtrapati Bhavan. He has also underscored that this would be the right thing to do because Kalam has been president already. Nearly half-a-dozen previous vice presidents were so elevated.

In the current ambience of uncertainty,it may be useful for all concerned to take a close look at some instructive landmarks in the elections of the last 12 presidents. The first three of them — Rajendra Prasad,S. Radhakrishnan and Zakir Hussain — had added lustre to Rashtrapati Bhavan rather than vice versa. It was Hussain’s untimely death in 1969 that brought the passage to this august office into some disrepute. This was due to a very ugly contest for the presidency because of bitter infighting within the ruling Congress party. Indira Gandhi and the syndicate of powerful party leaders that had merrily managed her election as prime minister three years earlier were by then at war. The syndicate succeeded in nominating Sanjiva Reddy as the Congress’s presidential candidate. Protesting that he had been unjustly ignored,Vice President V.V. Giri resigned and announced that he would contest as an independent candidate. The infuriated Indira camp immediately rallied round him in the name of “conscience vote”.

Giri did win but with a narrow margin,and that too because of the second preference votes for him by those whose first preference was the third candidate,C.D. Deshmukh. However,in love,war and elections,the winner takes all. Two years later,Indira Gandhi had attained supremacy.

When Giri’s tenure ended in 1974,she had therefore no problem making one of her senior ministers,Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed,president. Unfortunately,by meekly signing the Emergency proclamation in 1975,he became the first president to earn the moniker “rubberstamp president”. To pitchfork Giani Zail Singh into Rashtrapati Bhavan was not one of Indira Gandhi’s imaginative decisions. It ended up in a direct confrontation between Singh and her son,Rajiv Gandhi. R. Venkataraman restored dignity to the office of India’s head of state. Of what happened after the Congress refused to make P.C. Alexander,the NDA’s first choice,president,and both the BJP and the Congress agreed on Vice President Krishna Kant,the less said the better.

Pratibha Patil rose to presidency primarily on the gender wave. With all due respects to her and those who chose her,this did not prove to be the best arrangement. Mercifully,she did not allow anything unconstitutional to happen. But the unusually huge expenses on her

foreign tours,often accompanied by too many members of her extended family,did her no credit. The story of the palace being built as her post-retirement residence in Pune on defence land is lamentable.

Can we have someone like Radhakrishnan,Hussain,Venkataraman or K.R. Narayanan as the next president?

The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator

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