It is time we treat the President's office with dignity

Written by: Shubham Ghosh

With each passing day, India's Presidential election is turning out to be a political farce. The focus has been more on promoting 'our man' by various political parties instead of reaching a national consensus on the fittest incumbent for the prestigious position. Apart from the two national parties, regional forces like the BJD, AIADMK, Trinamool Congress, RJD, too have joined the fray by voicing their own preferences.

Rastrapati Bhavan

But is this a way to go about in picking a candidate, who would represent India in the comity of nations and other important stages of the world? No. If picking the right candidate, one who boasts of virtues like honesty, integrity, inspiration and is highly qualified and capable of reflecting the heterogeneous culture and democratic ethos of a country like India, is left to the hands of political parties and leadership, which have lost its moral ground to contribute to the country's public life in any form, then it will left much to be desired.

What's happening with choosing a presidential candidate today is, however, not the first of its kind. The office of the country's ceremonial head, which was once occupied by people like Babu Rajendra Prasad and Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, has been devalued over the years.

Indira Gandhi was perhaps the first Indian political leader to have subjected the President's office to political ploy. In 1969, she used the presidential election to split the Congress and backed VV Giri to the post. In 1975, Prime Minister Gandhi made the then President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed to ratify the infamous Emergency.

The 1982 presidential poll was another instance when political games were being played within the Congress (India's parliamentary politics was largely controlled by the Congress in those years). Gandhi, this time, made the 'servile' Zail Singh the President of India. Politically, Singh's nomination was justified as a positive gesture to Punjab, which then was undergoing a big turmoil.

But Singh's loyalty did not help him avert a clash with the prime minister in the days to come. After Gandhi's assassination in 1984 and the subsequent enthroning of Rajiv Gandhi as the PM, a clear friction was visible between the president and prime minister. It is also believed that Singh had contemplated the dismissal of the Rajiv Gandhi government over the Bofors scandal. President-PM differences also existed during the times of Rajendra Prasad and Jawaharlal Nehru but those were differences over ideals and visions, not petty political ploys to outwit rivals as it later turned out to be.

This time, confusion is the apt term to describe the run up to the presidential poll. Various parties have been declaring different names. One section in the media has floated the name of former President APJ Abdul Kalam for a second stint at the Rashtrapati Bhavan. Kalam, as a candidate, would have a big support no doubt but renominating him to the top post, in a way, would expose the paucity of suitable candidates in a huge country like ours.

Speculation is also rife on a tribal candidate emerging as the 13th President of India. This could be a strong move for somehow, our political leadership loves to experiment with the 'first-timers' at the President's office, be it a Dalit, a woman and now a tribal.

Veteran politician Pranab Mukherjee is another name that is doing the rounds. According to some analysts, Mukherjee's name is doing the rounds more so after Patil's stint, an apparently purposeless one. Congress ally at the Centre, Trinamool Congress, however, has opposed the plan. Projection of Mukherjee as a candidate could be made keeping in mind the 2014 elections, for a party man at the helm could help the Congress make vital moves after the polls. But if the Congress flounders, Mukherjee would end up to be a 'overlap incumbent', i.e., one who endures two opposing regimes.

The President's office is modelled on the UK Monarch, a titular head of the state. The President, as a symbol of the state, is the supreme commander of the armed forces but subject to legal qualifications (Article 53 of the Constitution of India). The constitution also establishes the supremacy of the Parliament over the office of the President. However, there have been incumbents, who within their constitutional limitations, asserted their existence beyond a rubber stamp. KR Narayanan was a president who made the idea of using presidential discretion quite a significant one.

Article 75 stating that the Prime Minister shall be appointed by the President while other ministers shall be appointed by the President on the advice of the Prime Minister, signifies importance of the President's office. The President can play an important role at the time of government formation. In the past, we have seen presidents like Shankar Dayal Sharma playing an eminent role in admirably managing a situation where there has been no clear winner. In 1996, when none had a majority, the President had invited the BJP to form government knowing well that it could not win the Houses' confidence. Today's coalition politics and fractured Houses give that extra space to the President to act.

An able incumbent undoubtedly will add to the glory of the President's office. But manipulating it for petty gains by the political leadership would denounce it further. The political space today is too much fractured for a single party to manipulate the prestigious office to its own advantage, like what the Congress had done. This might be a positive aspect but at the same time, floating too many names by too many parties and failing to arrive at a consensus could create new obstacles for the presidential polls and also trivialise the institution. It is high time that we attach a sense of dignity to the election of the first citizen of the country or abolish the institution altogether. For it is not a domain for flexing political muscles, as has been the trend.

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