From the editor- in- chief
Sometime in the third week of July, India will elect its 13th president. The votes will be cast on behalf of the people by their elected representatives— an electoral college that consists of members of Parliament in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha and members of Legislative Assembly of each of India’s 30 states. The race is particularly interesting this time around because the ruling coalition, unusually, does not have a majority in the Electoral College. The Congress and its allies have just over 40 per cent of the votes. The leading opposition alliance, the NDA, has around 30 per cent of the votes. The potential kingmakers lie among the powerful regional parties like the SP, BSP and CPI( M), which are aligned neither with the UPA nor NDA. Given the arithmetic, Congress will find it very difficult to elect a person of its choice unilaterally. Even allies like the Trinamool Congress, NCP and DMK may not play ball. That rules out a Pratibha Patil type of candidate this time around. That is good for India. Patil was an obscure politician who had far too many skeletons in her cupboard to deservedly occupy India’s highest office of state. Her only qualification was that she was faultlessly obsequious to the Congress’s first family. The presidency reached a nadir after her election. It needs a renewal.
The President of India is mostly, but not entirely, a titular office. The president is always bound by the advice of the prime minister and council of ministers, except while naming a prime minister. It needs a person of stature to occupy it. India’s first three presidents, Rajendra Prasad, S. Radhakrishnan and Zakir Hussain were scholars and freedom fighters. They had the moral authority to take stands on issues that were at variance with the government of the day. Prasad, for example, clashed with Nehru often on various matters of policy, including the Hindu Civil Code Bill. A good president must be able to retain some independence of opinion and be seen to be above partisan politics.
Unfortunately, what interests political parties, now, is the one discretionary power vested in the president— the right to appoint a prime minister. Of course, the prime minister can only continue in office if he or she has a majority on the floor of the Lok Sabha. But in an era of fractured mandates when no single party or alliance has the requisite majority, the role of the president in deciding who gets the first shot at forming a government is crucial. Congress would certainly like a pliant president should a hung Parliament materialise in the General Election of 2014. Congress President Sonia Gandhi knows a few things about confrontational presidents. Giani Zail Singh was loyal to Indira but turned against her husband, becoming a threat to his political survival.
Our cover story, written by Editorial Director M. J. Akbar, examines the presidency in a historical perspective and highlights the fact that it can become a political conflict zone if the relationship between the prime minister and president is mismanaged, or gets politicised. None of the candidates whose names are doing the rounds, whether Vice- President Hamid Ansari or Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee or former President Abdul Kalam, fit the pliant bill. They also have considerable popular appeal. To gauge popular perception, the India Today Group has launched the “Pick your President” campaign. The campaign will run across our print, digital and television properties and we invite all Indians to express his or her choice for the next president. Our first opinion poll for the magazine shows that Kalam comes out on top. Mukherjee, Anna Hazare and Ansari also receive popular endorsement.
It’s still early days in the race. I only hope that we get a president who makes us proud.