It is unlikely that President Pranab Mukherjee will find himself elected for a second term because he has not endeared himself sufficiently to the ruling establishment.
The 2017 presidential election time-table will kick in over the next two weeks, but the political bosses and managers have already begun their manoeuvres and exertions to find a replacement for Pranab Mukherjee. No one should be surprised to be told that like all his predecessors since Rajendra Prasad, President Mukherjee, too, hopes for a second term. He will not get it. He has not endeared himself sufficiently to the ruling establishment for it to oblige him with five more years in the spacious Rashtrapati Bhavan. And, within the opposition, he commands only mixed respect. Above all, he is no Rajen Babu.
Yet a new president has to be found. And it is an arduous search, not to be undertaken lightly. It is not an inconsequential office. Admittedly, the president of India is not just a ceremonial head of the republic; and again, arguably the exact nature and extent of his power remains far from a settled proposition. Beginning in 1967, efforts have been made to make the president of India much more of an active political player than envisaged in the Westminster model of government. In 1967, it need be recalled, a sitting chief justice of India, inexplicably and inexcusably, became embroiled in the politicians’ squabble when he got tempted with the idea of occupying Rashtrapati Bhavan; Chief Justice Subba Rao allowed himself to be persuaded to become the Swatantra Party-Jana Sangh presidential candidate against the Congress nominee, the vastly respected Dr Zakir Husain. Zakir sahib won easily and handsomely, but the judiciary lost its image and reputation as an institution above party partisanship. And, then, again, in 1969, Zakir sahib’s untimely death necessitated one more presidential contest; and, once again, the presidential election was sought, this time by the Congress bosses, to fix Indira Gandhi, who, they thought, was becoming too big for her boots. The years 1967 and 1969 firmed up the notion of presidential mischief.
Since then sections of the political class have periodically tried to mobilise and manipulate Rashtrapati Bhavan in their partisan wrangles. The Rajiv Gandhi-Zail Singh spat remains the classic reading for every student of constitutional missteps. And, in contrast, is the case of President Shankar Dayal Sharma, speaking out on December 6, 1992, when the prime minister of the day, P.V. Narasimha Rao, seemed determined to keep silent in the face of the massive assault on India’s secular project. Still later, President K.R. Narayanan stood up for political fairness and constitutional morality when he returned the I.K. Gujral government’s recommendation for the dismissal of the Kalyan Singh government in Uttar Pradesh in 1997. Presidential energy can sometimes be critically helpful.
Nonetheless, it needs to be reiterated clearly and unambiguously that Rashtrapati Bhavan is not – and cannot be allowed to become – a rival centre of authority. There is no room for an ‘activist’ president in Rashtrapati Bhavan; his job is not to be a speed-breaker or to run hurdles for the democratically elected prime minister. Political power lies with the prime minister and upon his ability to command the confidence of the Lok Sabha. The prime minister is the embodiment of the popular democratic will and it is he – and, not the president – who is enjoined to govern the country in conformity with the constitution of India. The president is not totally devoid of prerogatives and powers but he does not run the country. Patronage, power, policies and initiatives are all in the prime minister’s domain.
Yet the president is not a simple rubber-stamp – no Mrs Pratibha Patil or Mrs Sumitra Mahajan will do. Rashtrapati Bhavan is also not a place to park superannuated leaders in recognition of their services to the ‘party’. And, certainly, the mansion atop the Raisina Hill is not for a judge who might have bailed out this or that powerful political impresario at a critical junction.
It should be easy to agree that the man (or the woman) who gets to reside in Rashtrapati Bhavan has to be a substantial personality. The presidency, after all, is not without its expectations of substance and stature. The ceremonial part of the presidency itself makes demands of dignity and decorum. Physical well-being and agility should be the minimum qualification; and, perhaps, a modicum of intellectual stamina. Indeed a president with a patina of intellectual and scholarly accomplishments becomes an asset, especially in interactions with global leaders. President K.R. Narayanan was an outstanding example of such usefulness.
After the BJP’s bumper crop in the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections, the numbers in the 2017 presidential college are stacked up, more or less, in favour of the ruling National Democratic Alliance. The prime minister and his advisers cannot be faulted for wanting not to have a president who may have the potential of becoming an antagonist. The constitution does not favour a confrontationist in Rashtrapati Bhavan. At the same time, very many sober citizens would want the final choice to be an outstanding personality, someone who could be a source of wise and sagacious advice to the prime minister.
On the other hand, the opposition, led by the Congress, is within its legitimate right to make every effort to use the coming presidential contest as an opportunity to consolidate its own ranks and test the extent to which unity and cooperation is possible among disparate non-BJP formations. If the opposition is able to zero in on a man or woman of stature and standing, then the ruling party will feel obliged to make a matching substantive choice of its own.
It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to predict how a president would turn out to be. The very magnificence of the building, the very elaborate ceremonial paraphernalia, the mahamahim mumbo-jumbo, the handsome and presentable ADCs, with their golden braids, and many other symbols of pomp and ceremony combine to give a false sense of power. And, then, sometimes there are family members who instigate thoughts of delusion and rebellion; and then, not to be discounted, are the cunning aides who succumb to the allurement of conspiracy.
Mature polities instinctively watch against such miscalculations and mischief. And, for this very reason alone, the choice of a man of substance and learning becomes a republican imperative. By virtue of being the head of state, the president also becomes a custodian of its republican virtues and vitality. The citizens expect the president to keep a careful eye on the goings-on in the realm. The citizens, particularly the middle classes, like to be reassured that the polity is firmly anchored in a certain constitutional wholesomeness. In other words, no Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed-type spinelessness. Without injecting any kind of constitutional imbalance, the next president would be called upon to provide a balance.