How significant is the President of India – in political, rather than ceremonial, terms?
If you were to go by the tenure of the current incumbent: not very.
Oh yes, she seems like a nice enough person and has performed the job competently enough. But frankly, she has made no political difference at all. And she hasn’t even reached out to people in the way that, say, Abdul Kalam did.
This is not to say that Presidents make no political difference. In 1979, when the Janata government was falling, Sanjeeva Reddy played a crucial role. And in 1986, Giani Zail Singh did his bit to try and topple the legally elected government of India.
But these are exceptions. On the whole, Presidents of India have refrained from playing politics. And even if they wanted to, their options and opportunities are severely limited.
But here’s the irony: even though the Presidency is a largely non-political position, the Presidential election is one of the most significant political events during the tenure of each government.
To understand the significance of the election we need to go back to 1969 when Indira Gandhi failed to get the rest of the Congress to support her choice as party nominee for President. When the Congress nominated Sanjeeva Reddy (who she did not like) Mrs Gandhi worked surreptitiously to defeat the official Congress candidate and threw her weight behind VV Giri who was standing as an Independent. Once Giri defeated Reddy, the die was cast.
The Congress expelled Mrs Gandhi. She broke away and formed her own party. And the rest is history.
Few Presidential elections can have been as significant as the 1969 context. But nearly every election since then has served as a test of strength, as a way of making a political point. For instance, when Mrs Gandhi returned to power in 1980, she chose Giani Zail Singh as her candidate to indicate her complete mastery of the political scene. Zail Singh was a dead loss candidate with little to recommend him. To make matters worse, he even declared that if Mrs Gandhi asked him to sweep the floor, he would pick up a jhadoo and start sweeping.
That such a man was elected President told us how totally Indira Gandhi ran India: she could even install an aspiring broom-wielder in the highest office in the land.
Over the last decade, Prime Ministers have not been as cynical as Indira Gandhi was. But each Presidential election has been a political statement.
For instance, the Vajpayee government had promised the post to Dr PC Alexander, the then Governor of Maharashtra. The deal had been negotiated by Pramod Mahajan who took it for granted that the Congress would support Alexander because he was once Indira Gandhi’s principal secretary. But the Congress treated Alexander’s dealings with the NDA as betrayal and refused to support him. Even within the BJP, partymen wondered how Pramod Mahajan believed he had the authority to select the President of India and protested the choice. Eventually, the BJP dropped Alexander’s candidacy.
What followed next was another show of strength. AB Vajpayee asked Brajesh Misra, his powerful principal secretary to negotiate with the Congress over a new candidate. Misra met Sonia Gandhi’s envoy, Natwar Singh, and the two of them agreed to nominate Vice President Krishan Kant as a consensus candidate. The choice was announced and Krishan Kant began celebrating his imminent elevation.
But this led to another revolt. The BJP cadre demanded to know how its support could be taken for granted and a deal struck on its behalf by Misra, who was a technocrat, not a politician. The uproar led to the dropping of Krishan Kant’s candidacy, not because there was anything wrong with Kant himself, but because the party wanted to send out a message about Misra’s lack of political clout.
Eventually, Abdul Kalam was chosen at the last moment only because nobody could find a reason to object to him.
Five years later, the same sort of thing happened. The obvious candidate was Dr Karan Singh who would have made an outstanding President. The Congress imagined that his candidacy was a done deal because even the BJP recognised his credentials as a scholar of Hinduism.
But an objection arrived from an unexpected source. The CPM refused to support Karan Singh and threatened to bring down the UPA if he was nominated. The CPM’s only objection to Singh was the circumstance of his birth. He had been born the Maharaja of Kashmir and as good Leftists, the party could not countenance the elevation of a royal.
Did the Left really object to Karan Singh as a person? Would it have adversely affected the Indian proletariat if a former royal had moved into Rashtrapati Bhavan?
Of course not. It was never about Karan Singh. It was about demonstrating strength. The Left wanted to show that the UPA was so dependent on its support that it could make the government dance to its tune.
Something similar is happening these days. Except that the situation is far worse than it has been at any time in several decades. Mamata Bannerjee has always disliked Pranab Mukherjee so it is no surprise that she is less than enthusiastic about his candidacy. But what is astonishing is that she has gone so far in publicly opposing Sonia Gandhi’s choice and that she has been able to enlist Mulayam Singh Yadav as her ally.
Given that Presidential elections are shows of strength, Mulayam’s role in this episode has little to do with his personal preferences. He has addressed a joint press conference with Mamata to send a message to the UPA: you are weak and I am strong; you are collapsing and you need me.
Mulayam has gone even further. By saying that he would prefer Manmohan Singh as President, he has publicly displayed a lack of faith in Manmohan Singh as Prime Minister. What Mamata and he are saying is simple: it is time to kick Manmohan Singh upstairs.
During UPA I, when the Left objected to Karan Singh’s candidacy only as a way of flexing its muscles, we thought that this demonstrated the UPA’s weakness. But what is happening now goes far beyond anything the Left did. The way in which the allies are behaving indicates the extent to which the UPA has lost legitimacy and the level to which disillusionment with Manmohan Singh’s Prime Ministership has sunk.
There are several ways out. The Congress can talk to the BJP and agree on some Kalam-like compromise candidate. Perhaps Mulayam can be brought around. Certainly, the government will not fall over the Presidential election.
But if the Congress cannot get its candidate through and has to fall back on compromise, then the message that will go out is severely damaging: this is a government that is now so weak that its allies can spit in its face with impunity.
Once that message goes out, then how far away can the end be?