Millennium Post

Road to Rashtrapati Bhavan

India’s presidential elections have often had a political significance which well exceeds the function of that exalted but largely ceremonial office, which typically becomes all-important only when there is a hung Parliament. This was true of the election of the first president, Rajendra Prasad, which saw politicking and display of rivalry between prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru and the arch-conservative home minister (Vallabhbhai Patel) who backed Prasad.

Nehru’s candidate was Independent India’s first governor general Rajaji (Chakravarthi Rajagopalachari), a well-regarded politician of a scholarly bent, but who later formed the strongly Right-wing Swatantra Party.

Nehru had an excellent rapport with Rajaji but was averse to Prasad not least because of his public display of religiosity and superstitious nature. Prasad wanted to change the date of Republic Day because 26 January was astrologically inauspicious. He wanted to renovate the Somnath temple, and doggedly opposed the mildly progressive Hindu Code Bill moved by B R Ambedkar.

Nehru campaigned against Prasad, by pleading with extraordinary politeness that he withdraw from the contest in Rajaji’s favour. Prasad, equally politely, but with Patel’s backing, refused. Finally, Nehru gave up – a major symbolic defeat. Ironically, Rajaji administered the oath of office to Prasad!     

The 1967 election was dramatic because Koka Subba Rao resigned as chief justice of India to become the opposition’s presidential candidate. A bench headed by him had just passed the Golak Nath judgment with major implications for constitutional rights. This was thus seen as a verdict motivated by political rather than juridical reasons. His candidature was widely criticised – not least by eminent jurists like M C Setalvad. He lost to Zakir Hussain.

The 1969 presidential election was even more sensational. It transformed the Congress and gave a new turn to Indian politics. It became a contest between Indira Gandhi, then three years into the prime minister’s office but still weak, and established conservative regional party bosses, including K Kamaraj, S K Patil, Atulya Ghosh, S Nijalingappa, and Neelam Sanjiva Reddy, called the Syndicate.

The Syndicate controlled the party machine, was closely allied with Big Business, and compelled Indira Gandhi to induct her rival Morarji Desai as deputy prime minister. The presidential election gave the Syndicate a chance to strike against Indira Gandhi, whom they contemptuously dismissed as goongi gudiya (dumb doll).

The Syndicate first tried to persuade Indira Gandhi to contest for the president’s office. When she refused, it forced the nomination of Sanjiva Reddy, much against her will. Indira was outvoted when she proposed Dalit leader Jagjivan Ram as an alternative to Reddy. Meanwhile, vice president and former labour leader V V Giri declared he would contest as an independent.

Indira saw in this an opportunity to take on the Syndicate. She moved decisively and with astonishing speed. She sacked Desai and nationalised 14 major banks. Her attempt to give Congress a clear Left-leaning identity gained credibility when the Syndicate approached Right-wing opposition parties, the Swatantra and Jana Sangh, for electoral backing.

Indira Gandhi supported Giri by calling for a 'conscience vote'. With his victory, Indira established her political pre-eminence. When the Congress split, a majority joined her. Soon, she launched the famous 'Garibi Hatao' slogan and won wide popular support with Left-leaning policies, which eroded only when she imposed the Emergency in June 1975.  

The Emergency’s lifting saw Sanjiva Reddy installed in Rashtrapati Bhavan in 1977. He was succeeded by Congress nominee Zail Singh, who deplorably intrigued against prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and gave his office a partisan reputation instead of one that rises above political parties.

That reputation has stayed, especially with A P J Abdul Kalam’s candidature in 2002 sponsored by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance. This was opposed by the Left parties, although not the Congress. The idea of consensus again went for a toss.

Kalam didn’t enhance his stature by declaring in 2007 that he would be willing to become president again if there’s consensus in his favour. When that became unrealisable, he said he would only contest if he was sure of winning. A rather faceless Pratibha Patil became the president.

The current election has again witnessed intense politicking, albeit of a different nature. Various parties and alliances have been sparring with one another and testing their respective strengths by floating trial balloons or proposing different candidates. Kalam’s name cropped up yet again. And he ducked, yet again – disappointing the BJP and Mamata Banerjee.

Meanwhile, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance dithered. It’s only on 15 June that it announced that former finance minister Pranab Mukherjee would be its candidate. The regional parties, emboldened by their recent state election victories, asserted themselves in the resulting vacuum. This speaks to their steadily rising political importance.

If the surprise move by the Biju Janata Dal and AIADMK to nominate former Lok Sabha speaker P A Sangma as their presidential candidate altered political equations, the even more bizarre list of three candidates, including Manmohan Singh, proposed by Mulayam Singh Yadav and Banerjee, galvanised the Congress into action.

The Congress beat back the challenge to its authority by pulling off a trump card. Mukherjee’s nomination was backed by Yadav, although not yet by Banerjee. Mukherjee seems certain to win more than 60 per cent of the electoral-college vote.

The BJP tried hard to build support for its greatly shrunken NDA – down from 24 parties at its peak to a mere seven now – by recruiting non-constituents into a joint front with an eye on the 2014 elections. But Mukherjee’s candidature attracted support from the BJP’s own allies, including the Janata Dal (United), the Shiv Sena and even Maneka Gandhi.

The BJP was reduced to backing Sangma only because it didn’t want the UPA to have a walkover. In the process, it only further weakened the NDA and reduced its chances of becoming the prime challenger to the UPA.  

Sangma’s bid, in particular his projection of himself as a tribal, a group which has so far had no incumbent in Rashtrapati Bhavan, unlike women and the religious minorities, isn’t going very far. A Garo Christian from Meghalaya, he is a very different tribal from the bulk of India’s Adivasis in the central and eastern belt. He himself admits that only a 'miracle' can help him win.

Meanwhile, the very logic of being a BJP-sponsored candidate is compelling  Sangma to rationalise the notorious killings of Christians by Hindutva activists in Kandhamal in Orissa. He has incurred the displeasure of his own Nationalist Congress Party by breaking ranks with it on backing the UPA’s nominee.

True, the BJP has managed to keep the AIADMK and BJD – which recently quit the NDA – in the pro-Sangma camp. But that’s unlikely to ensure their return to the NDA. Even more substantial is the setback to the BJP’s ambitions from the JD(U).

JD(U) leader Nitish Kumar has opened a new political gambit by taking an unambiguous stand against Narendra Modi’s bid for the BJP’s leadership, and by saying he would only back an NDA prime ministerial candidate who is secular.

Kumar is a star in his own right as the first successful chief minister of Bihar in a long time. Although he rules the state in alliance with the BJP, he has kept it on a tight leash and Modi at a safe distance. Besides, his party is close to winning a majority in the Assembly on its own.

Kumar’s opposition to Modi has found backers even in the Telugu Desam’s Chandrababu Naidu. This could well be the beginning of a new non-Congress-non-Left secular front which might play a significant role in the run-up to 2014 and beyond.

This isn’t the sole national-level change the presidential election process has catalysed besides the UPA-Mulayam line-up, the NDA’s weakening, and Banerjee’s relative isolation. It has also highlighted the growing disarray, turmoil and infighting in the BJP. The party is not only rudderless. It is without a credible national leader with a modicum of acceptability.  

Equally significant is the disadvantage the Congress will suffer by losing Mukherjee, its most versatile politician, principal trouble-shooter and astute negotiator, with friends across the entire political spectrum, who headed as many as 43 groups of ministers on a variety of subjects. The gains for the Congress through Mukherjee’s victory are likely to prove minor and temporary in comparison with its general political decline and growing loss of credibility as a party of governance.

The Left front is also among the losers. The Communist Party of India and Revolutionary Socialist Party have refused to join the CPM and Forward Block in backing Mukherjee’s candidature. The CPM will find it hard to justify its decision and counter the charge that it has acted out of parochial West Bengal-centric considerations to exploit the 'fissures' between the Congress and Banerjee.

As the resignation of its sole new national-level full-timer and spokesperson Prasenjit Bose suggests, this doesn’t augur well for the CPM or the Left.
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