As the country inches ever closer to the election which will give India its 14th President, the politics related to it, both behind the scenes and in front of cameras, is heating up.
BJP, the ruling party at the centre and in 17 states (13 on its own and 4 in coalition) is trying hard to decide on its candidate which would be able to get elected without any chance of a shock defeat. Meanwhile, the entire opposition is trying to come together in an attempt to get its own candidate into the Rashtrapati Bhavan. If such an outcome becomes a reality, it would give a major boost to the deflated morale of the opponents of the ruling party.
The question that may arise in the minds of many is why the post of President, which in India is often described as a 'rubber stamp,' would garner so much interest. It is a doubt that has been raised and debated by political analysts, leaders and general public many times before, and has plenty of merit in it.
A look at not only the history of India along with that of the rest of the world should be able to throw enough light on the subject for it to realised just how crucial the post can become, if the incumbent chooses so, especially in critical moments that may arise in the course of running a country.
Why such posts matter in a democracy
Almost all of human history, at least since the times of Egyptian pharaohs, is filled with the rule of Kings, Queens and their families. This continued in different forms till as recently as the times when colonialism and imperialism dominated the globe.
This, however, began to change with the rise of democracy around the world as the chosen form of modern government. While in almost all forms where the rulers were generally monarchs, based their rule on the argument of having divine powers from God, the colonial powers added the might of military and economic power in addition to it.
All this was turned on its head with the advent of democracy, which started to come up around the world after the second World War. People's vote became the basis of power, for those who were elected to govern, and which could be taken away as and when the citizens willed.
And it was this history of rulers and their rule till then, that made the leaders of democracies apprehensive to reside the same amount of powers in a single elected leader, as was enjoyed by the monarchs of old.
This is what led to what can be described as a separation of the holders of what can be best described as 'Power' and 'Glory.' This can be understood as having a De Jure head, who has power in according to law, and the De Facto head, the actual holder of power
The best example comes from England, the oldest democracy in the world with a long history of being ruled by different Monarchs with complete power. It now has an elected leader, the prime minister, who holds the power to govern, while the ceremonial head, the Monarch, at present the Queen, holds the post where all decisions are taken in her name.
This is similar to most other countries which fall under the bracket of a parliamentary democracy. All such steps can basically be described as a method to make sure that modern day dictators, similar to the Kings, do not come to power again and drag the process of evolution of governments back in time.
Powers of President of India
And this is no different in the case of India, which before being a colony of England, had various rulers governing different territories. And after independence in 1947, as it chose to be a democracy, a form similar to its colonial masters was decided to be adopted, with a separation of powers among the Executive (Indian government), the legislature (Parliament) and the Judiciary.
And to make sure that no single leader, the prime minister, even if, he or she, gains control over the parliament with electoral victories, is able to bypass all others including the judiciary, the post of President was chosen as the formal head of the executive, legislature and the judiciary as well as the commander-in-chief of the Indian Armed Forces.
Though this might seem to be a powerful position, the powers that the President can really exercise are curtailed by the fact that almost all actions have to be taken on the advice of the Council of Ministers (Read prime minister and his minister). And this is where the accusations of being nothing but a 'rubber stamp' take birth.
In addition to the powers mentioned (or the lack of them), all the bills passed by voting in the legislature can only become law after the President approves and signs them. And this is where the post enjoys some powers like the three vetoes; Absolute (refusal to give assent in cases of private members bill or if given by a government which has resigned); Suspension (Can return once with concerns but has to sign in the form returned to him); and Pocket (neither giving assent nor rejecting and holding the bill without taking any action). These have been sparingly used so far.
But the post also holds powers which can be termed crucial in politically volatile times. As in the case of a hung parliament, the President gets to decide which party should be invited first to form the government. Also in the case of elected leaders openly violating the principles of the constitution, it is within the power of the President to take action against the prime minister or any member of the council of ministers, if he or she, is satisfied with the information submitted to him or her by the government of the day.
The President matters
Though the list of powers that the post enjoys might seem to be limited, the reality is that even a single decision that a President takes in crucial times might be enough to hold the government to account. A step such as resigning from office can put the government of the day to face a severe backlash from the entire country, whereas strong statements made by the President can force it to course correct.
Sadly or thankfully, depends on a person's reading of India history, such steps have not been part of the narrative of the political history, even when they would have been deemed justified by the majority of the population.
These include the times when the Congress government led by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared an Emergency in 1975, but the then President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed was more than willing to comply with her instead of standing up to such an action, and also the case of the seventh President, Gyani Zail Singh, who refused to act in a tough manner while 1984 anti-Sikh riots broke out with its epicentre in Delhi, backed or at least allowed by the government following the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
So given such actions or lack of them, it would be hard to disagree with the conclusion that even though the post of the President might lack in concrete powers which can be used to point out and help rectify the serious issues of the day, it has generally been the person in the seat who let the country down, as enough ways exist for the head of the government to achieve such a result.
The latest election
The importance of the post in India can also be seen from the fact that the President is elected. Though it is not a direct election where citizens of the country vote as it would give rise to tension between the President and prime minister, both of who will then be able to make legitimate claims to power, the elected representatives do cast their votes to choose the constitutional head.
And it is such a system that has brought the BJP, which came to power with a thumping majority and emerged victorious in state elections one after the other, close to a position where it very well might be able to get a President of its choice elected.
This seems crucial to the party as even when in power during the election of the 11th President of India, it had to go with a nominee such as APJ Abdul Kalam, who though very popular, was definitely not the party's first choice and had to be nominated due to lack of numbers. But this is cannot be considered the case this time and is exactly why Narendra Modi is sure to push for a candidate who would be seen in line with the government and party's thinking.
Results of elections since 2014 are also the main reason why the opposition is trying their best to come in the way of the government's plan. They are also using the elections as an experiment to see whether all the parties against the BJP can be brought together, so as to put up a united front during the next general assembly elections.
Also, the idea that the current government does not want the resident of Rashtrapati Bhavan to become an impediment to its agenda of governance and the opposition hopes that he or she can help raise its concerns, have raised the stakes of the Presidential elections.
While the current election might be seen as a game of political one-upmanship, the history of such posts, both in India and the world, shows the importance of it. The only hope that all neutral should have is neither should the President be so political in nature that he crosses constitutional lines and raise a risk for democracy, or be so non-commital as to watch in silence and be detrimental to it.