Who will be India's new president?
Rashtrapati Bhawan Photograph: (Others)
BJP is in the striking distance of getting a president elected who will hail completely from a non-Congress stock. For the first time in post-independent India, BJP will be electing a president without any help from parties who are ideologically opposed to it.
So, it brings us to the question as what the presidential candidate would look like? The history proves that largely, presidential candidates bore the will of the prime minister or the one who controlled the lever of power, which in the case of the UPA government in both its phases was Congress President Sonia Gandhi.
The early years of the republic saw the office of the president being occupied by those who led India's freedom struggle; they were held in high esteem by the Congress party.
The list of the ‘firsts’ includes Dr. Rajendra Prasad, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Dr. Zakir Hussain. Dr. Prasad was a volunteer with Gandhi during Champaran movement in 1916. Despite differences of opinion between Nehru and Rajendra Babu, representing the Left and Right ideas respectively, the two leaders co-existed. Their mutual respect was born out of their shared struggle. Each acknowledged the significance and contribution of the other.
Radhakrishnan who went on to become the president in 1962 was an educationist and a politician in shadows. He became vice president of the country in 1952 but wasn’t overtly part of the freedom struggle or the Congress Party. He was an educationist whose birthday is celebrated as Teacher’s day in India. Dr. Zakir Hussain too was an educationist and co-founder of the Jamia Millia Islamia University. He served as the second vice president of India. Their election, more than anything else, reflects a Congress party increasingly being dominated by Nehru in the post-1950s.
Fakhruddin Ali Ahmad shamed the country by signing the proclamation of the emergency, demonstrating his commitment towards an individual rather than the Indian republic.
Rajendra Prasad, Radhakrishnan, Zakir Hussain constituted the compatriots, achievers, authors and visionaries of the new Indian republic. They were first amongst the equals.
Post-1969 all the presidents, including KR Narayanan came from active Congress stable. Most of them had the opportunity to interact with MK Gandhi, and subsequently, make a smooth transition to various spheres of government at the centre and states after 1952.
All of them were minted in the Congress tradition and were aware of the rise of Indira Gandhi in the political ecosystem. Also, they were insiders who served as the Members of Parliament, ministers and chief ministers under Nehru, Shastri and Indira Gandhi when they were the prime minister. But for the selection to high office, loyalty became an important parameter.
VV Giri became the president, defeating the official candidate of the Congress, Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy when Indira Gandhi called for a conscience vote opposed to the "syndicate" in the party.
All the former presidents, including Shankar Dayal Sharma were dyed-in-the-wool Congressmen. Even KR Narayanan, a Foreign Service officer got his break from India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru on Harold Laski’s letter. Fakhruddin Ali Ahmad shamed the country by signing the proclamation of the emergency, demonstrating his commitment towards an individual rather than the Indian republic. Zail Singh openly sang peons for Indira Gandhi, though Singh eventually fell out with her son Rajiv Gandhi. Both of them, however, professed loyalty towards Indira Gandhi.
Congressmen became the Union president even when the power in the center happened to be in the hands of non-Congress parties.
For instance, when Janata Party came to power in 1977, Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy was elected unopposed as the president. Morarji Desai was the prime minister and, ironically, both were ex-Congressmen. It led to the famous saying: "Vipakash kee Sarkar mein bhi Congress ka hee raj hota hai.”
It didn’t matter much in 1977 but did become an issue in 2002 when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was interested in getting a prominent Congress man Krishan Kant elected as the president but couldn’t owing to the opposition from hardliners in his party.
It is in this backdrop Prime Minister Narendra Modi will nominate BJP’s candidate who will truly belong to his ecosystem. An emaciated Congress in 1991 was able to elect Shankar Dayal Sharma as the president who Sonia Gandhi wanted to become the prime minister after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination. He declined, and PV Narasimha Rao got the opportunity to become one. A year later Sharma went on to become the president.
Pratibha Patil was a result of a larger alliance built by Congress to push a non-controversial Congress candidate on the basis of loyalty and gender.
Lastly, APJ Kalam went on to become the president though BJP did not have the number in the electoral college but succeeded because of the Congress support. The Congress High Command supported Kalam because it didn’t want to go with the Left-supported candidature of Captain Lakshmi Sehgal. On the other hand, Pratibha Patil was a result of a larger alliance built by Congress to push a non-controversial Congress candidate on the basis of loyalty and gender. It would be noteworthy that even Left had its say in the election of the vice president when Hamid Ansari occupied the office.
The last of them is current president Dr Pranab Mukherji who became the president out of his will and his ability to influence players across the political spectrum.
This brings us back again to the question on the type of person Narendra Modi would like to ascend to Raisina Hill? To put it simply, he will be a person of complete non-Congress stock. He or she would have either worked with or through the ranks of the RSS. The person’s ideological loyalty to the RSS-BJP will be unquestioned. Such a president would showcase the autonomy of the government in electing their own man.
Despite short of numbers, the Congress lately was able to elect presidents of its choosing because it dominated the ideological ecosystem of the country. The only compromise that the Congress party made was that for the position of the vice president because it required the support of the Left to survive in 2007.
The issue is whether BJP would fall into the trap of sectional representation like South, tribal, gender or Dalit categories? Though the Congress never overtly acknowledged but partook the claim to have nominated the first Dalit as the President in KR Narayanan. Sonia Gandhi got lackluster Pratibha Patel as the president for the reason she is a woman. Vajpayee had to make do with Kalam because Congress couldn’t say no to a candidate of minority dispensation. His name was suggested by Mulayam Singh Yadav and brokered by V. Naidu.
In 2017, none of the above-mentioned constraints exist for BJP. Once the party is done deliberating with other political parties, it is expected to announce one of their own as the presidential candidate. The BJP-nominated candidate would share the party's cultural and ideological ecosystem in complete opposition to the Left-Congress imagination of the Indian landscape. Whether it comes in the shape of Sushma Swaraj, Sumitra Mahajan, Draupadi Murmu, the person will owe his nomination to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He will bear Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s signature who in Vajpayee’s absence has become the ‘pratham purush’ or the first man of the government, party and ideology.
So, let’s wait for the name.