Race To Raisina Hill
It seems that the country will know for sure who is India’s next President only on July 22, the day the results of the Presidential election will be announced by the Election Commission. At the moment, there is no consensus over a particular candidate. The Congress party has rejected the names of Abdul Kalam, Somnath Chatterjee and Manmohan Singh that Trinamool Congress (TMC), a constituent of the ruling UPA and Samajwadi Party (SP), which is supporting the UPA from outside, have proposed. While it has outright rejected Kalam and Chatterjee, the Congress says that it simply cannot afford to shift the Prime Minister who is doing a fabulous job. On its part, the Congress, as revealed by West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, has two candidates—Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee and Vice President Hamid Ansari.
What this reveals is that things are not in order within the UPA. And the problems are all the more complicated because of the fact that no Congress candidate can ever win the Presidential post without the support of the TMC and SP as the party simply does not have enough number in the electoral college where elected state MLAs, along with the elected MPs, are the voters. Of course, things would be different if the opposition BJP and its NDA allies support the Congress candidate. But the Congress is too arrogant to ask for the support of the opposition BJP and its NDA allies, although a section of the BJP top leadership and some NDA constituents will be too happy to help the Congress supremo Sonia Gandhi.
Officially, the BJP or for that matter the NDA have not suggested any candidate, though speculations are that Kalam would be acceptable to them. Then we have former Speaker PA Sangama, a senior leader of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), whose daughter is a central minister and whose party is a constituent of the UPA. He has declared himself a candidate and is meeting leaders of all the political parties. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa and Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik have pledged him their support. There are speculations that the NDA may eventually back him.
Since no party and alliance has got the majority in the electoral college, we may see a lot of bargaining and intrigues over the next one month. However, I do have a suspicion that the Congress will eventually manage. Because, all told, as long as Mulayam Singh Yadav of SP, Mayawati of BSP and Lalu Yadav of Rashtriya Janata Dal face corruption-cases that are investigated by the CBI and Revenue Intelligence, they will come to the rescue of the Congress at the crunch time. Because, the Congress has been using these two organisations unabashedly over the last nine years against all its political opponents. In fact, it is not an exaggeration to say that the CBI, for all practical purposes, has become a Congress Bureau of Investigation. Never in its history, the CBI must have had such a low credibility as is the case now.
Of course, unlike other elections, party-whips cannot be issued in the voting for the Presidential elections. That means that members of the electoral college can always exercise their choice as per their conscience. Incidentally, this conscience-vote had helped VV Giri in getting elected as the President in 1969, even though he was not the official Congress candidate. That year, the country had witnessed the sorry spectacle of the Prime Minister, Ms. Indira Gandhi, openly defying the party directive and supporting Giri.
Incidentally, 1969 elections also marked the beginning of the politicisation of the office of the President. Till then India had outstanding men of intellect and integrity as Presidents—Rajendra Prasad, Radha Krishnan and Zakir Hussein. I am not belittling President Giri, but the fact remains that his election marked the onset of the trend of the ruling party at the centre installing party loyalists as the Presidents with a clear idea that the person occupying the highest constitutional position of the country will act only as a rubber stamp of the government of the day. Presidents henceforward were not seen as impartial to the ruling party’s ideology; they were supposed to be partisans. It was only in 2002 that there was an exception to this trend when the then NDA government went for a consensus candidate in APJ Abdul Kalam, a non-politician (His predecessor KR Narayanan, though a career diplomat, had joined the Congress party and was a minister in the Narasimha Rao regime).
In fact, over the last few years, the politicisation of the President’s office has further degenerated. Now nobody is talking of persons of eminence and competence occupying the exalted office. Instead, what is assuming more importance is the caste, gender and religion of the candidate. That is why we hear the need of a Muslim President, a woman President and a dalit President!
Indeed all this is a great pity, considering the fact that the President of India under our Constitution is expected to play a very vital role. In fact, if you read the Constitution, “President” appears as many as 598 times, compared to only 15 times for the “Prime Minister”, in it.
This raises the question: who between the President and Prime Minister is more important? Those of you who have been following the writings of our eminent columnist Rajinder Puri in this magazine know that President is not supposed to be the titular head of the state. I do not necessarily agree with Mr Puri, but the fact remains that there is a grey area that needs to be clarified by our Supreme Court. I may cite here the debate between Dr BR Ambedkar, the chairman of the drafting committee of the Constitution and the President of the Constituent Assembly Dr Rajendra Prasad (who eventually became the first President of the Republic) on May 23, 1949.
Ambedkar had said: “The President of the Indian Union will be generally bound by the advice of his Ministers. He can do nothing contrary to their advice nor can he do any thing without their advice. The President of the United States can dismiss any Secretary at any time. The President of the Indian Union has no power to do so as long as his Ministers command a majority in Parliament.”
To this Dr Rajendra Prasad pointed out, “I have my doubts if this word could bind the President. It (the draft constitution) only lays down that there shall be a Council of Ministers with the Prime Minister at the head to aid and advise the President in the exercise of his functions. It does not say that the President will be bound to accept that advice.”
Ambedkar had then replied, “In all matters within the scope of the executive power of the Union, the President shall, in the exercise of the powers conferred upon him, be guided by the advice of his ministers. We propose to make some amendment to the draft to make things very clear”
Interestingly, however, when the Constitution was finally adopted on January 26, 1950, Ambedkar’s promised amendment of the draft did not find any place. Article 74 only said, “There shall be a Council of Ministers with the Prime Minister at the head to aid and advise the President in the exercise of his functions.” Nowhere did it say that the President is bound to accept this advice. No wonder why during emergency, the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi did bring out the 42nd Amendment (1976) of the Constitution that said: “There shall be a Council of Ministers with the Prime Minister at the head to aid and advise the President who shall, in the exercise of his functions, act in accordance with such advice.”
However, under the subsequent Janata Party’s rule, when Morarji Desai was Prime Minister, the 44th Amendment of 1978 was passed, to take care of “the butchering of the Constitution by the 42nd Amendment”. The powerlessness of the President in being bounded by the Ministers’ advice was diluted, and a second paragraph was added to give the President one chance at having the Ministers reconsider the advice. It said: ”Provided that the President may require the Council of Ministers to reconsider such advice, either generally or otherwise, and the President shall act in accordance with the advice tendered after such reconsideration.”
Has the debate ended here? Mr Puri says “No”. Words “such reconsideration” are open to various interpretations. But one thing is clear. It will be wrong to say that the Indian President is exactly like the British monarch, who reigns but does not govern. After all, in this age of coalition politics when no political party is likely to get the legislative majority to form the government on its own, the President will play a huge role in deciding who should get the first invitation to form the government. And this is exactly the reason why every party hopeful of forming the government after the next general elections will like to have its own person at the Raisina Hill.
By Prakash Nanda