Presidential elections in India are a ho-hum event for the average citizen. At best, this is a moment when the government “signals” its political identity or its governance style. The BJP-led NDA government has succeeded in the former but not the latter.
Shivshankar Menon, national security adviser in Dr Manmohan Singh’s government, uses the “minimum cost, maximum benefit” strategy as the defining principle of India’s foreign policy. This applies equally well to identify the political incentives behind presidential nominees.
Why Presidential nominations are the outcome of a MinMax strategy
The ruling party’s biggest nightmare is to nominate a candidate who loses. This is not only egg on its face, but it opens a Pandora’s box of future antagonisms between the government and the head of the state. It has never happened thus far. But it is wise to budget for minimum risk, especially when the upside of having “your own man (only one of thirteen Presidents has been a woman) in the Rashtrapati Bhawan are limited.
The Constitution severely limits action, independent of the government, by the President. But the potential for being deviously obstructionist exists. James Mason — the distinguished political scientist — credits Babu Jagjivan Ram – the original dalit face of Indian politics – with the insight of how to do a “Putin” in the Indian context and acquire covert, unconstitutional political power. The only redress against a malevolent President is to impeach him in Parliament. Whilst theoretically possible, it requires a two-thirds majority. That is tough if the President is politically savvy and actively conspires to defeat the motion, including by requesting MPs to merely abstain from the vote.
Unrealised political ambition is not an asset for being President
In the heady days after Emergency was lifted, the Janata government — a loose coalition of political interests, opposed to the authoritarian rule of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi — came to power. But it splintered. Prime Minister Morarji Desai lost his majority and resigned. Y.B. Chavan and Charan Singh sequentially failed to build their factions into a majority. President Neelam Sanjiva Reddy (1977-82), instead of giving Babu Jagjivan Ram — leader of the largest rump of the Janata Party — a similar opportunity, dissolved the Lok Sabha and ordered fresh elections. This was, at best, presidential over-reach to force an early conclusion to the drift. At worst, it was intentionally muscular, to induce an election, in anticipation of an uncertain outcome, which would allow then the President to manoeuvre and put a “pocket” government in power.
Petulance can warp Presidential efficiency
Later a petulant President Zail Singh (1982-’87), a “trusted” political follower of Indira Gandhi, used obstruction as a mechanism to show his annoyance at being politically ignored by the debonair, apolitical Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, who stepped into his mother’s political legacy, but wanted no part of its earthier political roots.
Ego is a killer for normative functioning by the President
President K.R. Narayanan (1997 to 2002) was a “working President”. Nothing was further from his intent than subverting the Constitution. In fact, he felt a heightened sense of responsibility to keep the ship of state credible and morally enlightened in the face of unstable minority governments. He possibly felt, albeit unwisely, that the President, being elected by an electoral college much wider than the Lok Sabha, had a stronger, deeper representativeness. He was also decidedly uncomfortable with the BJP holding the reins of power — a hangover from the post-Independence demonisation of the Hindu right-wing party. This mutual distrust led to his public speeches and media interviews being interpreted as being critical of government policy. He departed from his prepared and vetted speech at a state banquet in New Delhi and seemed to hector President Clinton of the US – the chief guest, on the proclivity of great powers to play “headman”, quite contrary to the government’s intentions.
The game is rigged so that nominees of the Union government win elections
The process for Presidential elections is constitutionally rigged in favour of the Union government. The Lok Sabha, where every Union government has a working majority, has a vote share of 35 per cent. The Rajya Sabha — where the government, like the present one , may not have a majority – has a smaller vote share of 15 per cent. State legislative assemblies have an aggregate vote share of 50 per cent. But the weight for each state Legislative Assembly varies and is indexed to its population. Just 10 of the most populous states — out of a total of 31 states — together have a 37 per cent vote share in the electoral college. An MLA from Sikkim has vote value of seven versus 208 vote value that an MLA from Uttar Pradesh commands. This is one reason why political parties go all out to capture elections in state legislative assemblies.
Union governments have traditionally played safe and fielded nominees whose reliability trumps their candour. Political placidity is preferred to ambition. Being of an age close to permanent retirement is a key qualification.
President elect Ram Nath Kovind – the perfect fit
Ram Nath Kovind, the BJP’s nominee and the 14th President of India, is a perfect fit. He is non-controversial and low-key. His Hindutva beliefs seem to be personal rather than aggressively political. Like President Narayanan, he is a dalit and hence a symbol of continued dalit empowerment. He is the first President from Uttar Pradesh — the most populous Indian state with the largest population of Scheduled Castes. His election reiterates that Uttar Pradesh, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s adopted karam bhumi, remains close to his heart.
Thus far the average age of Presidents, at the time of election, has been 71 years. Mr Kovind is right on the button being 71 years of age. The youngest at 64 years was President Neelam Sanjiva Reddy. His subsequent actions reiterated that unrealised ambition is not an asset for this position. But age alone is no assurance of placidity.
K.R. Narayanan — never “a rubber stamp President” — shares the honour of being the oldest at 77 years, with R. Venkataraman (1987 to ’92).
Ironically, 81 per cent of India’s population is less than 44 years of age and 97 percent was born post-Independence. But all our Presidents have been from the pre- 1947 colonial period. It doesn’t need to be that way.
The minimum age to be elected President is 35 years. But till we effectively depoliticise the presidency, by defining a code of conduct with detailed guidelines for presidential action (an Indian Magna Carta), the potential for youthful ambition to seize power covertly, will dissuade governments from taking the risk of electing a youthful, erudite President, as the face of Bharat which is India.
An opportunity lost for being transformative
The government has played the “minimum-maximum” game to perfection. The irony is it didn’t need to do so. This was a low-risk opportunity to reinforce its commitment to cooperative federalism and to broaden the ambit of governance by pulling in apolitical talent. At the very least, it should have tried harder and negotiated in good faith, to get President Kovind nominated by all parties, rather than making him contest an election. Admittedly, there is no political tradition urging it to do so. But Mr Modi did not start out trying to be a template Prime Minister.
One hopes he will resist the institutional incentives to lapse into a transactional, rather than his earlier, transformative mode.
Adapted from the author’s article in The Asian Age, July 21, 2017 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/210717/template-rashtrapati.html