It is that time again. With the Budget out of the way and the end date of the incumbents looming, attention can now be shifted to the quinquennial Big Game – the election of the president and vice-president.
First a small complaint: why Rashtrapati? Why not Rashtrapramukh? I recall reading many years ago of a villager asking: as Gandhiji was Rashtra-pita, was Rajendra Babu his son-in-law, as he was Rashtra-pati? Should we not have gender-free titles?
The substantive matter is vital. These offices should be for people who command support from all sides. That was the case with the first three presidents. Then, with the contest between V V Giri and Neelam Sanjiva Reddy, Indira Gandhi broke that tradition. Presidency became a demonstration of strength of the ruling party. Senior Congress leaders could dream of occupying Rashtrapati Bhavan if they were on the right side of the Family.
When K R Narayanan became president, there was a person who was able to engage the public but also represented a significant minority — the Dalits. Since then there are certain unstated considerations which shape the choice of both high offices. One is to be representative of the diversity of India, be it regional, linguistic, jati or tribe. Often the choice for the vice-presidency bears the burden of reflecting diversity, which allows the bigger job to be decided on purely political grounds.
Without prejudice to the incumbent, it is indisputable that of all the presidents of recent years, it was President Abdul Kalam who connected best with the people. He aroused genuine affection. He was a teacher and a mentor to many, even from a distance. He was unusual in many respects.
He came from outside party politics. His being Muslim (Atal Bihari Vajpayeeji, picking him, surprising many of his detractors) was not his only card. It was his expertise as a scientist, his ability to rise above all politics and his informality which won all the hearts. His passing away saw a genuine national mourning.
Of course, not everyone can be Abdul Kalam. But one idea is that there ought be a way of inviting suggestions from the public as to who they would like to see in the top seat. Ultimately, senior politicians will always be in the fray. The political parties are already manoeuvring with names.
Party strength in the collegium which will elect the winner has been calibrated. It may already be too late to even raise the question as to who. Some senior BJP persona; who else? Quality of the person chosen is hardly a consideration. The point is to show who is now in power.
Even so, we need a greater engagement of the citizens in the process. It may be not officially possible, but it is open to the media to invite suggestions and conduct a poll among the top ten names. Even better would be to ask people to rank their choices by a Single Transferable Vote.
That in itself would be an education. Of course, this is not a popularly elected post. The Constitution is clear. It is however a ceremonial job. It affords the winner a fantastic platform to become the nation’s interlocutor. The collegium should know.
Make a start with the vice-presidency. How about a national poll?