In July of 1987, Mithilesh Kumar Sinha was the most protected man in the country. The authorities housed the frail 67-year-old man in a Lutyens bungalow. Police officers surrounded him, and a doctor checked on his health regularly. He headed an organisation called the Goodman’s party, which wanted the creation of a Ministry of Character Training. Shri Sinha was the third candidate in the election for a new President after Giani Zail Singh, and his continued good health was vital. He told the media, “My life has become entwined with that of Rajiv Gandhi. If anything happens to me, the election will be postponed, Zail Singh will continue as a caretaker president, and you know how eager Mr Gandhi is to get him out.”
Presidential elections are a straightforward affair. The ruling party’s candidate wins easily, and sometimes the opposing candidate loses his deposit. Like in 1997 when K R Narayanan trounced former Chief Election Commissioner T N Seshan. And it started with the first election in which President Rajendra Prasad was the consensus candidate despite the reluctance of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Opposing Prasad was K T Shah, a professor of economics and an active contributor to the framing of the Constitution. As a Constituent Assembly member, he suggested that people elect the President by a popular vote rather than an electoral college of elected representatives. In his unsuccessful bid for the highest office in the country, he received 15% of the votes.
President Prasad did not face a serious challenge for his second term, nor did President Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, when he was elected in 1962. But the elections of 1967 were a different matter. In the general elections held earlier that year, the Congress had lost power in multiple states and had reduced majority at the Centre. The Opposition convinced Chief Justice of India (CJI) Kota Subbarao to resign and challenge the government’s candidate, Zakir Hussain. In his last acts as CJI, Subbarao authored the judgment where the Supreme Court ruled that Parliament could not curtail fundamental rights. He secured 43% of the votes in the first stiffly contested presidential election.
Two years later, President Zakir Hussain’s untimely death necessitated an election in 1969. PM Indira Gandhi faced resistance from within about the choice of the presidential candidate. Her opponents wanted Lok Sabha Speaker Neelam Sanjiva Reddy. She saw it as a bid to remove her as PM. Things took a strange turn when Vice-President V V Giri resigned and stood for the election as an Independent. The ruling party’s candidate was Speaker Reddy, and some of the Opposition parties supported Shri C D Deshmukh, who had been RBI Governor and Finance Minister. There was massive cross-voting by Congress legislators for Giri. It led to the defeat of the party’s official candidate.
The election of the 6th President in 1974 was a tame affair. By then, PM Gandhi had a firm grip on her party, and its candidate Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed easily defeated the Opposition’s Tridib Chaudhuri, a freedom fighter and veteran parliamentarian. During his fifth term in the Lok Sabha, Chaudhuri contested the presidential poll and continued to serve two more terms in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha after his loss.
President Ahmed’s death in office resulted in another early poll, in which Sanjiva Reddy won unopposed.
In the 1982 elections, another former Supreme Court judge, H R Khanna, was the Opposition candidate against the Congress’s Giani Zail Singh. Justice Khanna was the judge who had stood up for the inviolability of the basic structure of the Constitution and the protection of fundamental rights during the Emergency. The government later superseded him for the position of CJI.
A third apex court judge, V R Krishna Iyer, contested the presidential election, in 1987. Justice Iyer and Mithilesh Sinha stood against the Congress’s R Venkataraman. Iyer had won an MLA election in Kerala and been a minister in the state. His interpretation of the right to life as a judge influenced the court in later years.
In this election, both Iyer and Sinha urged the government to give them time on television and radio to air their views, which was rejected. The election is remembered less for Venkataraman’s victory and more for Sinha hogging the media attention and getting seven votes.