Getting India’s top post

The guessing game has already begun. Who is going to be the next President of India? The term of the present incumbent, Pratibha Patil, ends in July and names of her likely successor are making the rounds in the corridors of power.

By Rahul Singh (Perspective)

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Published: Fri 20 Apr 2012, 10:54 PM

Last updated: Fri 3 Apr 2015, 3:29 PM

The main reason why the next president is so important is because 2014 will be a crucial year in Indian politics. The five-year tenure of the present government, the Congress Party-dominated United Progressive Alliance (UPA) comes to an end, and a general election is due.

Normally, the president’s post is largely a ceremonial one, much like the Queen in Great Britain. He – or in the present case, she – follows the government’s instructions. He, or she, is the chief guest at important functions and makes tours abroad, promoting India. However, 2014 could be an abnormal year and the president’s role could be pivotal.

If, in a general election, a political party gets an absolute majority in the Lower House of Parliament, the Lok Sabha, the president’s job is relatively straight forward: He summons that party to form the government. But, this is not likely to happen in 2014. The days of one-party domination are over and we are in the era of coalition politics.

The two main parties in India, the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have had to depend on the support of other parties to form a majority in the last two decades or so. The Congress Party had hoped to change that pattern and had been confidently predicting that a popular surge in its favour would bring it to power on its own in 2014.

But the recent state elections, particularly in the key state of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous, brought the Congress thudding down to earth. It performed miserably. The BJP, too, was embarrassed by its poor showing.

Regional parties, not national parities like the Congress, the BJP and the Communist Party of India (CPI) are going to be the key to government formation in 2014. Start paying more attention to the likes of Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal, Jayalalithaa in Tamil Nadu, Naveen Patnaik in Orissa, and Akhilesh Yadav in U.P. They are going to be decisive factors in 2014.

Which is where the Indian president comes in. He will need to gauge which combination of parties can muster a majority in parliament and hence form a government. His judgment will be on the line and his impartiality under close scrutiny.

Let us now look at some past presidents and how they have performed.

India’s first president was Rajendra Prased, a respected though colourless man — who was completely overshadowed by India’s first prime minister, the charismatic, glamorous Jawaharlal Nehru. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, the next president, was a renowned scholar, as was his successor Zakir Husain.

All three were uncontroversial and never clashed with their prime ministers. This changed completely with Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi, coming to power.

The president’s post became embroiled with Indira Gandhi’s battle for ascendancy within her own party. Amenability, rather than eminence, became the main criteria.

A succession of mediocrities occupied the top post: V.V. Giri, Sanjeeva Reddy, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed and Zail Singh. In a famous cartoon, Abu Abraham portrayed Ahmed, lying in his bathtub, signing a presidential ordinance on Indira Gandhi’s orders! Yes, those were the days when presidents were merely rubber stamps.

Perhaps, the most admired of subsequent post-Indira Gandhi presidents was “missile scientist” A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. He was the surprise choice of the BJP-dominated PDA government. And it was an inspired choice. He restored the stature and prestige of the presidency. He demurred when legislative bills were sent for his approval that he was unhappy with, forcing the administration to look at them again.

His successor, Pratibha Patil, was chosen by Sonia Gandhi, mainly because she was a woman and loyal to the Nehru-Gandhi family. She has not distinguished herself in any way.

Who will be her successor?

Various names are doing the rounds. There is the vice president, Hamid Ansari, a retired diplomat, but he is considered something of a lightweight. One undoubted heavyweight is Pranab Mukherjee, the Finance Minister, though he may feel that he still has an important part to play in active politics. P.A Sangma’s name has suddenly cropped up. A respected former Speaker in Parliament, if he is selected, he would be the first tribal and Christian to be president of the country.

The other serious contenders are Meira Kumar, who has the advantage of being a woman and coming from the Dalit community. Former maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir, Karan Singh, has been a perpetual candidate and may get the nod this time. My own choice is Narayana Murthy, the founder of the iconic information technology company that transformed India’s economy, Infosys. He has retired and handed the company to younger hands. He would be an ideal president: wise, far-sighted and modern-looking. What chance does he have? Sadly, none.

Rahul Singh is the former Editor of Reader’s Digest, Indian Express and Khaleej Times

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