Jockeying for the Rashtrapati Bhavan

Updated: May 31 2007, 05:30am hrs
Political parties are still wrestling with who the best bet for the President would be from their respective points of view. The President is the first citizen of India, and the supreme commander of the armed forces. All Bills go to him for signature, and all important appointments are made by him. Most importantly, he decides who is to be invited for the top job in the country, in case the verdict is not quite clear, as it wasnt in 1996 or again in 1998. Former President KR Narayanan established a new coalition-era precedent by asking for letters of support from the Prime Ministerial claimant, AB Vajpayee, thus doing his bit for stability.

The President has often been perceived as a mere ceremonial head. While s/he is enjoined by the Constitution to act on the advice of the council of ministers, which represents the executive and by implication the will of the peopleIndia is envisaged as a parliamentary form of democracy, and gives the President the right to return a Bill to the House just onces/he simply has to sign the legislation if the House refuses to change or amend anything.

This is quite unlike the system in the US, where the President is directly elected by the people and directly responsible to them. There have been some voices in India in favour of a tough US-style Presidential systemespecially from the BJP, mostly in the form of statements by LK Advani. But given our social and political diversities (often idiosyncracies) and advantages of parliamentary democracy in ensuring stronger national unity through wider accommodation and the reluctance to concentrate power in any one individual, the debate appears to have died down now.

But it isnt as if Indian Presidents in the past were mere rubber stamps, cut off from the shenanigans or mood of the times. In fact, when N Sanjeeva Reddy (the official candidate of the faction-ridden Congress for Presidency in 1969) contested against the then vice-president VV Giri and lost, it was another affirmation of how crucial and political presidential elections were, and how reflective of the politics of the times. Reddys attempt became the breaking point for the Congress, with Indira Gandhi calling for a vote by conscience. Indiras supporters, known as the Indicate, split soon after from the old guard under Nijlingappas Syndicate. Reddy later won the elections in 1977 as the candidate of the Janata Party, which won the post-Emergency polls.

The emergence of APJ Abdul Kalam as a consensus candidate in 2002 was a sign that things are changing, with all parties keen to see a President who doesnt represent just one worldview. But only a bit
These days, with voices being aired for a non-political head of state, it might be useful to note that presidential elections are not romantic events. They have never been without political significance. No doubt, the emergence of APJ Abdul Kalam as a consensus candidate in 2002 was a sign that things are changing, with all parties keen to see a President who doesnt represent just one worldview and instead adheres to the spirit of the Constitution. But only a bit.

Even before the era of coalition governments, the President has been the nations conscience-keeper. President Kalam returned the Office of Profit Bill he didnt find satisfactory, and Narayanan played the role of a referee. When the United Front government was in power, and UP Governor Romesh Bhandari went out of his way to sack Chief Minister Kalyan Singh and install the Congress Jagadambika Pal, the President sent the orders right back, unsigned. Then again, when the NDA was in power and wanted to do the same to Lalu Prasad, he refused to play ball.

President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, the Indira Gandhi loyalist who signed the Emergency decree, died in office soon after signing it. Speculation has not ended over whether he could ever live down the guilt of that one single act. Meanwhile, as the political drama heats up, India awaits another referee.