SHALL WE CHOOSE THE PRES­I­DENT?

In­dia is very close to get­ting its first Pres­i­dent from the saf­fron bri­gade. But who? Some gos­sip, guess­work and po­lit­i­cal arith­metic as the pres­i­den­tial race starts shap­ing up

India Today - - INSIDE - BY DAMAYANTI DATTA

For the first time, the NDA is re­ally close to get­ting a Pres­i­dent of its choice. A look at the prob­a­bles and if they tick all the right boxes

Who wants to be the Pres­i­dent of In­dia? It’s the great­est job ever. Your salary of Rs 1.5 lakh a month may not sound much, but it’s tax-free and may soon be­come Rs 5 lakh. And the perks are more than worth the small amount of ef­fort you have to put in: for five years of speech-mak­ing, inau­gu­rat­ing, launch­ing, fe­lic­i­tat­ing and rub­bing shoul­ders with the high and mighty of the world, you get to live in the most ex­clu­sive and ex­pen­sive piece of real estate in the world—three times the size of Vat­i­can city—free of rent. Your palace is larger than that of the Sul­tan of Brunei, the Roy­als of Eng­land or the US Pres­i­dent.

It’s the per­fect job for per­fect hap­pi­ness. Set amidst 33 acres of peace­ful wood­lands, you wake up to the caw­ing of pea­cocks, pot­ter around your 340 rooms, 11.5 miles of cor­ri­dors, or­der around your bat­tery of 200-plus staff and body­guards, go for a ride in your Mercedes-Benz S6000 or any of those lux­ury sedans in your mo­tor­cade, taste those sig­na­ture dishes rus­tled up by chef Montu Saini, youngest Club des Chefs des Chefs mem­ber, re­tire to med­i­ta­tive rev­erie in your ma­jes­tic li­brary, lis­ten­ing dimly to the dis­tant hoof­beats of your parad­ing horses, as the heart of cap­i­tal Delhi lights up with your il­lu­mi­nated para­pets. If you get tired of all these, take off for any of your two lux­ury re­treats in Hy­der­abad and Shimla. Or travel any­where in the world, for free. Be­cause you are the Pres­i­dent of In­dia.

And, right now, there’s a va­cancy afoot. Pres­i­dent of In­dia Pranab Mukher­jee is down to the last 90 days in of­fice. On July 26, the next First Cit­i­zen will step into the coun­try’s most ex­clu­sive ad­dress, to a 21-gun salute. The Rash­tra­p­ati Bha­van is ready to be taken once again. Who wants the top job? And who will get it? Ru­mours are swirling. Ex­perts are pumping num­bers. Whis­pers from New Delhi’s cor­ri­dors of power are per­co­lat­ing from one so­cial cir­cle to an­other. The na­tion is wait­ing. With bated breath.

Power games

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The Pres­i­dent of In­dia is largely a cer­e­mo­nial post. “The Pres­i­dent is also a crea­ture of the Con­sti­tu­tion of In­dia,” points out Supreme Court ad­vo­cate Ku­nal Chatterjee. Ar­ti­cle 52 says: “There shall be a Pres­i­dent of In­dia.” Who’s el­i­gi­ble? A cit­i­zen of In­dia, age 35 and above, and must not hold an of­fice of profit un­der any govern­ment at the Cen­tre or the states (Ar­ti­cle 58). “The key clause of el­i­gi­bil­ity is that the can­di­date should be qual­i­fied for elec­tion as a mem­ber of the House of the Peo­ple,” adds Chatterjee. That means, he or she will have to de­clare as­sets, be men­tally sound, should not be bank­rupt and should not be crim­i­nally con­victed. Ac­cord­ing to Sec­tion 361(3), though, no process for ar­rest or im­pris­on­ment of the Pres­i­dent can be is­sued dur­ing his (or her) term of of­fice.

Un­like all the ex­cite­ment of elec­tions, where citizens vote di­rectly for their rep­re­sen­ta­tives, pres­i­den­tial polls are a less-trum­peted mo­ment and an un­usual ex­er­cise in democ­racy, ex­plains for­mer Chief Elec­tion Com­mis­sioner, T.S. Kr­ish­na­murthy—cho­sen not so much by ide­ol­ogy, but by a com­plex po­lit­i­cal arith­metic. Yet it is in­creas­ingly one of the most po­lit­i­cal pro­cesses, says Chin­ta­mani Ma­ha­p­a­tra, pro­fes­sor of po­lit­i­cal sci­ence at JNU. Tough ne­go­ti­a­tions and in­tense party pol­i­tick­ing have gone up, with coali­tion gov­ern­ments at the Cen­tre. The moot point is: what’s the po­lit­i­cal mes­sage a party’s send­ing across to the vot­ers? UPA 2 had cho­sen a woman, Prat­i­bha Patil. It had a Sikh as the PM (Man­mo­han Singh) and a Mus­lim as the Vice-Pres­i­dent (Hamid An­sari). In­dia has had a Mus­lim pres­i­dent four times, a Dalit, a Sikh and a woman. Only a tribal is left out, adds Ma­ha­p­a­tra.

Saf­fron mo­ment

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The pres­i­den­tial elec­tions 2017, how­ever, rep­re­sent an ex­tra­or­di­nary mo­ment: In­dia is very close to get­ting its first pres­i­dent from the saf­fron bri­gade. For the first time, the BJP-led NDA is get­ting ready to have a Pres­i­dent of its choice. In 2002, the last time the coali­tion was in power un­der Atal Bi­hari Va­j­payee, it was short of num­bers and had to back con­sen­sus can­di­date A.P.J. Ab­dul Kalam, says P.D.T. Acharya, for­mer Lok Sabha sec­re­tary-gen­eral.

This time round, the NDA has a ma­jor­ity in the Lok Sabha as well as elec­toral gains in Ma­ha­rash­tra, Haryana, Jharkhand, Jammu and Kash­mir and As­sam. Count in the sweep­ing vic­tory in Ut­tar Pradesh and Ut­tarak­hand, and gov­ern­ments in Ma­nipur and Goa. With the sup­port of its key con­stituent, the Shiv Sena, and a lit­tle help from one-time al­lies—the Biju Janata Dal of Odisha or the AIADMK of Tamil Nadu—and the NDA will get a Pres­i­dent it chooses.

Num­bers game

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The Pres­i­dent of In­dia is cho­sen not by uni­ver­sal adult fran­chise but by an elec­toral col­lege. And the value of votes goes by a for­mula worked out by the Con­sti­tu­tion on the ba­sis of pop­u­la­tion fig­ures frozen from Cen­sus 1971. Ac­cord­ingly, 776 elected mem­bers of Par­lia­ment (MPs)—543 from the Lok Sabha and 233 from the Ra­jya Sabha—along with 4,120 mem­bers of leg­isla­tive as­sem­blies (MLAs), or a to­tal of 4,896 elec­tors, can vote for the Pres­i­dent. The to­tal ‘value’ of their votes is 1,098,882. While MPs have a vote value of 708 each, that of MLAs de­pends on the state’s pop­u­la­tion.

Reach­ing one more than the magic half­way mark of the to­tal value of votes, 549,442, can make or break a party’s chances of get­ting its can­di­date elected as Pres­i­dent. This time the math seems clearly in NDA’s favour (see graphic). Be­fore assem­bly elec­tions 2017, the coali­tion’s strength was around 450,000, short by 185,000 votes. With sup­port from key con­stituent Shiv Sena (25,893 votes), the rul­ing party’s strength now is around 532,000, about 17,500 short of the half-way mark. The BJD and AIADMK could help bridge the gap.

Big play­ers

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Pres­i­dent Pranab Mukher­jee is el­i­gi­ble for re-elec­tion, as there are no term lim­its in In­dia. At the in­dia to­day con­clave on March 18, he had ex­pressed his un­will­ing­ness to seek re-elec­tion: “In a democ­racy, one must melt into the masses.” Although a postre­tire­ment bun­ga­low is be­ing spruced up for him, the buzz is the vet­eran Congress leader is lob­by­ing for a sec­ond term. The BJP shouldn’t have any cause for con­cern, though: a stick­ler for con­sti­tu­tional rec­ti­tude, he has gone with the flow of the Modi govern­ment, prais­ing de­mon­eti­sa­tion, echo­ing the PM’s pro­posal to hold all elec­tions con­cur­rently, sign­ing con­tro­ver­sial or­di­nances, procla­ma­tions and ex­e­cu­tions. He has long ex­pressed his ad­mi­ra­tion for the PM, who ad­dresses him as “Pranab da”. Mukher­jee also has friends across party lines: in the 2012 pres­i­den­tial elec­tions,

par­ties in the Op­po­si­tion had cross-voted in his favour.

Other big names do­ing the rounds in­clude: BJP stal­warts L.K. Ad­vani and Murli Manohar Joshi, apart from RSS supremo Mo­han Bhagwat. The PM dropped hints about Ad­vani as the next Pres­i­dent of In­dia at a meet­ing on March 8 at Som­nath, Gu­jarat—from where Ad­vani started his rath ya­tra to Ay­o­d­hya in 1992—as a be­fit­ting gu­ru­dak­shina to his po­lit­i­cal men­tor. The Shiv Sena pushed Bhagwat’s can­di­da­ture most ag­gres­sively for a while, as a Pres­i­dent who could re­alise the “dream” of a Hindu Rash­tra. But both Ad­vani and Bhagwat have an­nounced they are not in the race. Ad­vani and Joshi face trial for con­spir­acy in the 25-year-old Babri Masjid de­mo­li­tion case, although that does not make them in­el­i­gi­ble. In 2007, there was a call for the Cen­tral Bureau of In­ves­ti­ga­tion to in­ter­ro­gate can­di­date Prat­i­bha Patil be­fore the pres­i­den­tial poll. She and her brother G.N. Patil were im­pli­cated by the wife of Congress worker V.G. Patil in his mur­der in 2005.

All eyes on Modi

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Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi tweets birth­day notes to world lead­ers from his of­fi­cial han­dle (‘Birth­day wishes to Pak­istan PM Mr Nawaz Sharif. I pray for his long and healthy life’), po­lite mes­sages to po­lit­i­cal ri­vals (‘Greet­ings to Congress Pres­i­dent Smt. So­nia Gandhi. May Almighty bless her with long life & good health’), good wishes to celebri­ties he ad­mires (‘Happy birth­day leg­end @SrBachchan’) and just some­times to peo­ple no one re­ally knows of. And his 28,855,661 fol­low­ers pan, fast cut and zoom in on them. As the race for the Pres­i­dent tight­ens, Modi’s ‘favourite’ men and women join the list of pos­si­ble ‘sur­prise’ can­di­dates.

Ac­tu­ally, there’s no sur­prise here. As vet­eran scholar of con­sti­tu­tional law M.V. Pyle ex­plains in his Con­sti­tu­tional Govern­ment in In­dia, the Con­sti­tu­tion con­fers enor­mous power on the prime min­is­ter. For the party which se­cures a ma­jor­ity in Par­lia­ment, the Pres­i­dent is of­ten its nom­i­nee, and the “per­son­al­ity of the prime min­is­ter” has a sub­stan­tial in­flu­ence in the se­lec­tion of the pres­i­den­tial can­di­date.

The dark horses

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One such ‘favourite’ for the pres­i­den­tial race is Droupadi Murmu, 59, the first tribal woman to be­come the gover­nor of Jharkhand, and who started gar­ner­ing at­ten­tion as the po­ten­tial “first tribal Pres­i­dent of In­dia” ever since the PM tweeted on June 20, 2015: “I con­vey warm birth­day greet­ings to the gover­nor of Jharkhand, Droupadi Murmu ji.” Ever since, she has been cry­ing hoarse to the press that she doesn’t know who rec­om­mended her name for the post of gover­nor, that it might be her clean im­age and that, no, she doesn’t know the PM very well, and never got the op­por­tu­nity to com­mu­ni­cate di­rectly with him.

But Murmu could very well be the next Pres­i­dent. A grad­u­ate of Utkal Univer­sity, she started her po­lit­i­cal ca­reer as a grass­roots ac­tivist for tribal rights in the 1990s. On any given day, one can find her in­ter­act­ing with women from self-help groups, ex­tend­ing fi­nan­cial and other help to chil­dren of raped

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