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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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