Does India need another 'puppet' president?

By: Sreekumar Narayan
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The run up to the presidential election has been interesting but it makes one wonder, don't Indians as a whole deserve better? Over the last few weeks, all sorts of names have been floated by different outfits and pressure groups. While most were just hopeful wishes of the respective organizations, others highlighted distinguished individuals who had made a mark in their respective fields. Though none of them have publicly professed any interest in the top job, there is no denying that they would not mind becoming the nation's first citizen if the opportunity arises.

As expected, the leading political parties ignored these capable personalities and instead chose to focus on the 'usual suspects'. Initially the Samajwadi Party indicated that they will only support an apolitical candidate. This led to intense speculation about the likelihood of Dr A P J Abdul Kalam becoming the country's president for the second time. However, the BJP proclaimed a preference for him before supposedly discussing the issue with their allies and thereby ended up harming his chances.

Confusion in the NDA meant that Union Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, supposedly the choice of the Sonia Gandhi-led Congress party, emerged as the frontrunner. Although Trinamool chief Mamata Banerjee is yet to spell out her party's stand, major constituents of the UPA like the DMK and the NCP have already backed Pranab's candidature. Normally it is the ruling dispensation that calls the shots in the presidential election. Given a lack of majority in the electoral college, Congress cannot impose its will this time. Hence the party is trying to build up a consensus but the opposition has not been included in its effort so far.

There is still some time to go before we all get to know who our next president will be. Nevertheless, it is quite clear by now that the person concerned will belong to the political class and in all probability be another undesirable facsimile of some of the weak presidents which we had in the past. And therein lies the real tragedy. In a nation of over 1.2 billion people, surely it should not be that hard to find suitable candidates from other sections of society. An eminent scientist, industrialist, entrepreneur or even an artiste can very well fit the bill, considering the fact that the post is a largely ceremonial one as the titular head in our parliamentary system.

The country benefited much from the guidance of able statesmen like Rajendra Prasad and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan in the 50s and the 60s. Both of them laid down notable benchmarks for their successors. Nevertheless, we got a president in the mid 70s who did not hesitate to sign the proclamation of Emergency on the advice of Indira Gandhi's cabinet. Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed's unfortunate decision marked the beginning of the sorriest chapter in our democratic history. It was a time when the government trampled upon the people's freedoms and the press was muzzled.

A few years down the line, we witnessed another subservient president. Giani Zail Singh reportedly used to come out of the Rashtrapati Bhavan to receive Indira Gandhi whenever she paid him a visit. It is another matter altogether that he did not do the same later on when Rajiv Gandhi became the Prime Minister. According to political observers, Zail Singh did not feel as beholden to Indira's son as he did to her.
The President becoming a mere puppet in the hands of his or her political masters is not just a travesty but also a scary scenario for all those who believe in the vibrancy of our democracy. Let us keep our fingers crossed that such a thing does not ever again happen in India.

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