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Neerja Chowdhury writes | Presidential Poll: Choosing a president for our time

As suspense continues over who will be in Rashtrapati Bhavan next, a more fundamental question: What kind of president does the republic need today?

The importance of the presidential poll for the Opposition lies in effecting the maximum possible unity amongst non-BJP parties in preparation for 2024, and going for a candidate who can symbolise its counter-narrative. (Photo: Express Archives)

A new president will take over from Ram Nath Kovind on July 25.

Sharad Pawar’s “no” to becoming the Opposition’s consensus candidate — he has said he wants to remain in active politics — is a sign that the ruling side is confident of getting its candidate through. Pawar was best placed to garner the support of non-BJP parties, given his cross-party relationships over his long political career spanning half a century. But having won every election he has contested, he may not want to risk losing one now.

The NDA commands 48 per cent of the electoral college vote. But the remaining 52 per cent is a divided house. Five non-BJP parties were absent at the June 15 Opposition meeting called by Mamata Banerjee to evolve a consensus. They were Biju Janata Dal, Telangana Rashtra Samithi, YSR Congress, Shiromani Akali Dal and Aam Aadmi Party — these parties are obviously keeping their options open.

Stridently critical of the BJP, the TRS and AAP are unlikely to go with the NDA. TRS chief KCR, who has expressed a desire to move to the national stage, may have hoped to emerge as the Opposition’s consensus choice for Rashtrapati, but there have been few takers so far.

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More significantly, Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik (BJD) and Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Jagan Mohan Reddy (YSRCP) have indicated an open mind on supporting the NDA and met Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently. The two parties account for 7 per cent of the electoral college vote; the support of even one of them will ensure a comfortable win for the NDA candidate. But even without them, the BJP can be expected to pull out all the stops, work on independents and smaller parties, create abstentions and rebels in the major groups, as we saw in the recent Rajya Sabha elections. The BJP will have to keep its ally Janata Dal(U), known for cross-voting in the last two presidential elections, on its right side. These parties will extract their pound of flesh for their support.

That the NDA’s candidate will win, then, appears to be a given. The story might have been different had the BJP fared poorly in the recent Uttar Pradesh elections, which did not happen.

The Opposition is not only a divided house, it also got into the act late. First Sonia Gandhi broached the subject with a few Opposition leaders, then Mamata Banerjee decided to invite 22 parties to a meeting. In a show of accommodation, the Congress decided to attend the meeting, and to mollify parties like the AAP and TRS, it has indicated its willingness to back anyone selected by consensus.

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The importance of the presidential poll for the Opposition lies in effecting the maximum possible unity amongst non-BJP parties in preparation for 2024, and going for a candidate who can symbolise its counter-narrative.

The prime minister, on his part, has authorised Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and BJP chief JP Nadda to hold consultations with other parties to evolve a “consensus”, knowing that there is everything to gain by reaching out to Opposition leaders and displaying a spirit of conciliation when it is on the backfoot on hate speech by its spokespersons and now on Agnipath.

As the suspense continues over who will sit in Rashtrapati Bhavan next, there is also a more fundamental question: What kind of a president does the republic need today? Is s/he just meant to be the government’s rubber stamp, or does the role of the rashtrapati go beyond that?

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The president in our set-up does not enjoy executive powers. The 42nd Constitution Amendment enacted during the Emergency made the advice of the council of ministers binding on the president. Though the Janata government undid many of the draconian laws enacted by Indira Gandhi, it left the provision circumscribing the president’s role untouched.

Every prime minister has sought a president of his or her choice. It is easier for powerful prime ministers who command a majority, like Narendra Modi and Indira Gandhi, to have their way.

The president may be a figurehead but s/he has the power to appoint the PM, to ask the cabinet to reconsider a decision, or to deIay decisions by sitting on them, among other things.

An adventurist president like Zail Singh in 1987 was on the verge of sacking the then PM, Rajiv Gandhi, despite his unprecedented majority of 414 Lok Sabha MPs, and offered to swear in Vice President R Venkataraman as PM instead. ”RV” refused, and so did VP Singh, who was also sounded out. Fortunately, Zail Singh pulled back from the brink.

But on the other extreme was the pliant President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed who signed on the draconian Emergency proclamation of Indira Gandhi at midnight in June 1975, without raising an eyebrow.

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Between these two extremes lay the middle path several presidents tried to walk, as they nudged, restrained or censured the government as the occasion warranted, but did not cross the “laxman rekha”. Shankar Dayal Sharma criticised the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992. KR Narayanan helped PM IK Gujral rein in those in his coalition government who insisted on the sacking of the BJP government in UP in 1997; Narayanan asked the government to reconsider its decision, which it did.

R Venkataraman navigated three turbulent premierships — of VP Singh, Chandra Shekhar and PV Narasimha Rao, with whom he sometimes disagreed. A Congressman all his life, the “constitutionally correct” Pranab Mukherjee maintained a cordial relationship with PM Modi, but did criticise governance by ordinance and the growing dysfunctionality of Parliament.

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As the custodian of Constitution, head of state, part of Parliament, commander in chief of the armed services, visitor to central universities, the president can be a friend, philosopher and guide to the government, to ensure the health of institutions. And even troubleshoot behind the scenes, if required. But this can only happen if s/he has stature, cross-party relationships and consensus-making abilities — and a harmonious relationship with the PM. He is neither a rubber stamp, nor should he become a rival power centre to the prime minister.

The sceptics will call the hope for such a president of a billion plus people a pipe dream in the given situation. But then, “umeed par hee duniya kayam hai”, we live on hope.

The writer is a senior journalist

First published on: 17-06-2022 at 06:10:19 pm
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