[caption id="attachment_252785" align="aligncenter" width="700"] Vice President Hamid Ansari (left) and President Pranab Mukherjee (right)[/caption]
Now that this summer’s round of India’s state assembly polls is over and new governments have taken office, the next round of political battle, that of electing the President and the Vice President in July and August respectively has begun.
The huge success, especially in Uttar Pradesh, scored by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has set the mood. Even otherwise, it would have been safe to say the choice for the two constitutional offices will rest with the party, more specifically, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
For, whatever else the Indian democracy is, when it comes to choosing the President, it is a “prime minister-o-cracy.” This has always been the case and it is unlikely to change.
Another safe guess, although not governed by any rule or the Constitution, is that the present incumbents, President Pranab Kumar Mukherjee and Vice President Mohammed Hamid Ansari, will demit offices on completion of their terms. Neither of them is likely to be repeated.
For Ansari, it would be two five-year terms in office. But like some of his predecessors, he is unlikely to be elevated.
Past presidential elections have been preceded by much speculation and surprises and it will not be different this time. This is so because the BJP does not enjoy overall majority in the Electoral College. It is short of numbers in Rajya Sabha, Parliament’s Upper House that will have its biennial elections only in April next year.
This means the BJP will not immediately benefit from this house, but will do so immensely from the three-fourth majority it scored in Uttar Pradesh, having the largest number of electors with the highest per-legislator vote.
All this means that the BJP would have to engage in a flurry of talks to get a consensus to evolve in favour of candidates of its choice.
Given the current mood, the opposition may put up its candidate(s), even if the prospects of the victory are low. Several “token contests” have taken place in the past.
Past records are, indeed, interesting and important. For one, no President has got a second term except the first, Dr Rajendra Prasad. He was a political equal of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, a fellow freedom fighter and had presided over the Constituent Assembly. Indeed, Nehru’s attempt to elevate the then Vice President Dr Sarvapelli Radhakrishnan, at the end of Prasad’s first term was scoffed at by the party seniors.
From then on, each President has served only one term. Radhakrishnan spent a decade as the vice president before being elevated to the highest office.
Some, but not all, vice presidents got elevated to the presidency. Among those who did not were Justice M Hidayatullah, B D Jatti and Krishan Kant. Ansari will join that group.
There seems little scope for speculation regarding Mukherjee and Ansari. For one, they were elected during the Congress era and their successors will be those Prime Minister Narendra Modi would want.
Other issues of speculation and animated coffee house debate include the frequent view that like the American or the French president, the Indian President should have more powers vis a vis the prime minister. But they are useless political exercises.
The Indian Constitution clearly envisages an all-powerful prime minister and his or her cabinet and a President who is generally titular and ceremonial, playing a crucial role only in the formation of a new government.
To that, one may add in troubled times that befall us from time to time, he or she is also the conscience-keeper of the nation – but one who can act only within the ambit of the Constitution.
Whatever be their functions and powers, the offices of the President and the vice president are political in essence. This makes it essential that they are in tune with the thinking and actions of the elected government of the day. This does not always happen and even if the institutions do not clash, those occupying them can differ on issues. .
Much has been written, long after they were gone, about Prasad’s and later Radhakrishnan’s unease at the constitutional arrangement, but the basics have not changed.
Both Mukherjee and Ansari have been critical, albeit well within the ambit of public and political correctness, of the spirit and intent behind some of the omissions and commissions by the Modi Government and/or the impact they have caused. Both have emphasised on the need for rule of law to prevail at all times and on the wisdom of the government carrying all sections of the people along.
Both have sought to hold the mirror to the BJP leadership, stressing on the need for an inclusive approach in times of protests by many sections of the society over perceived acts intolerance by members of the government, the ruling party and their numerous front organizations.
Ansari’s emphasis on treatment of religious minorities earned him much trolling in the social media – mainly because he belongs to one of them. Mukherjee has on at least a dozen occasions talked of inclusiveness in the government’s dealing with the people and issues. The latest was his call for allowing autonomy to the universities and institutions for higher learning and keep them free for debate. He impliedly referred to some recent developments on the Delhi University campus and what had earlier happened on the campus of the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and in Hyderabad.
It is obvious that the cautions and implied criticism by the two has not gone well with the government. But niceties are maintained, as they should be. The time for the government to act is now, when the two offices will fall vacant.
A similar had ensued in the wake of the 2002 violence in Gujarat. Late K R Narayanan, a choice of the previous government made known his concerns at the Vajpayee Government’s perceived failure to play a role that could have stemmed the violence and correct the aberrations in the state. In such a situation, it was futile to expect, as some critics of that government did, for Prime Minister Vajpayee and the BJP to consider facilitating Narayanan’s re-election.
Earlier, Late Giani Zail Singh as the President, had serious misgivings about the storming of the Golden Temple in Amritsar in 1984. A Sikh himself, he suffered in silence at the bloodshed, first in the shrine and later, when Indira Gandhi was assassinated and in its aftermath, when innocent members of his community were killed.
His unhappiness at the way he felt he was being treated by Rajiv Gandhi has been the stuff of much political speculation and writings. Those were turbulent times, but in fairness to all, it must be said, neither side crossed the Rubicon and act in a manner that would jeopardize the president-prime minister relationship as laid in the statute book.
Mukherjee and Ansari may write their memoirs and much else. Scholarly Ansari has long years of engaging in diplomacy to record for posterity. Mukherjee, with four decades’ experience in government, perhaps longer than anyone else today, has made known his intention to write the concluding part of his memoirs about his years in Rashtrapati Bhavan.
They would be doing well in recording much-needed contemporary history the way some of their peers, including APJ Abdul Kalam did. Whether they would get paid the sums the Clintons ($ 15 million) and the Obamas ($ 80 million) are in the United States is a different matter. But they may not launch a political party or turn TV anchors like Pakistan’s General (rtd.) Pervez Musharraf and Asif Zardari!
After the “opulence and grandeur” of Rashtrapati Bhavan will come austerity. Entitled to a house, Mukherjee is expected to return to his relatively modest government bungalow at New Delhi’s busy Talkatora Road that he had occupied as union minister for long years. President Mukherjee demits office on July 27, 2017. Also, falling vacant in August is the vice president’s office with incumbent Mohammed Hamid Ansari completing his second five-year term.
India has done better than Britain, the United States among others who swear by democracy, in electing a woman, members of religious minorities, a philosopher, a scientist, those from different regions and language groups. They were people who excelled in their areas of activities before they ascended to the two high offices. The incoming persons later this year will hopefully continue with this record!