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The Politics of India's 'Apolitical' Presidential Race

File photos of former presidents Abdul Kalam and Pratibha Patil and incumbent Pranab Mukherjee. (PTI photos)

File photos of former presidents Abdul Kalam and Pratibha Patil and incumbent Pranab Mukherjee. (PTI photos)

“It is my personal choice that the former Lok Sabha speaker should be the next President of India,” says Samajwadi Party general secretary Naresh Agarwal.

News18 Sunday Feature “It is my personal choice that the former Lok Sabha speaker should be the next President of India,” says Samajwadi Party general secretary Naresh Agarwal.

Congress President Sonia Gandhi has already held a round of discussion with opposition leaders on presidential polls slated for July this year. The Left parties want to build a consensus around former West Bengal governor Gopal Krishna Gandhi.

Ruling BJP, along with its allies, though comfortably placed, has maintained a studied silence on the issue amid murmurs of the party backing a tribal or a Dalit name for the top constitutional position in the country.

Presidential elections in India epitomise real politics at its very best. It is like a game of cards, which players tend to keep close to the chest, waiting for the other side to make the first move or commit a mistake or call a bluff. There are no set rules, no set criteria. One player’s trump is another’s dummy. And at times, the entire exercise is reduced to a process of selection by elimination. Presidential elections are strewn with instances of wild card entries taking away the cake and eating it too.

Rewind 25 years to 1992. Then CPM general secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet stepped out of his room at AK Gopalan Bhawan, the party headquarters, in Delhi, tapping away the left palm — as was his wont — with a cordless phone in his right hand. Comrade Surjeet sought an urgent meeting of the available Politburo.

He had just received a call from the then Congress leadership seeking support for the party candidate — Dr. Shankar Dayal Sharma — in presidential polls. The ruling party, in lieu, was willing to accommodate the Left's choice in the vice-presidential elections.

The wiry leader told those present in the hurriedly assembled council that the candidate must be from the Dalit community and should preferably be someone the Congress could also claim as its own.

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After a short deliberation, the Left leaders finally zeroed in on a Congress MP from Kerala. He was an LSE graduate, a career diplomat, former vice-chancellor of the Jawaharlal Nehru University and someone who had served as a minister in the Rajiv Gandhi government.

Despite impeccable qualifications and four consecutive Lok Sabha victories, he was reportedly denied a cabinet berth in the Rao ministry for his reported 'Marxist leanings'.

So, that hot summer afternoon in 1992, a Politburo member, on instructions of the party leadership, rode pillion on a scooter to seek consent from KR Narayanan to be the vice-presidential candidate.

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Narayanan won that election quite comfortably as a joint nominee of the Congress, the Left and Janata Dal. VP Singh invoked his social justice credentials for having forced the government's hand. So did the Congress.

Five years later, Narayanan became the first Dalit President of the Republic, winning one of the most one-sided presidential elections by defeating former chief election commissioner TN Seshan by securing more than 90% votes in the electoral college.

The President's office as envisaged in the Constitution is apolitical in nature. That is, the President acts on the advice of the political executive with powers vested upon the Union Council of Ministers. But presidential elections in the country over the years have been used by parties — both in Opposition and government — to send a strong political message or even to settle scores.

Indira Gandhi called for a "conscience vote", securing victory for VV Giri against Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy, the official Congress candidate backed by the old guards. That was Mrs Gandhi's way of getting back at the 'Syndicate' which had once dubbed her as a mere puppet — the ‘goongi gudiya'. Many years later, Mrs. Gandhi once again used the presidential polls to send a strong political message by nominating Gyani Zail Singh in the face of growing secessionist movement in Punjab.

The last three presidential elections have been no less interesting. The NDA under Vajpayee had almost decided on fielding the then Maharashtra governor PC Alexander. The former principle secretary to Indira Gandhi on gubernatorial mission to Mumbai had developed close ties with Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray. Short of numbers, the BJP expected the Congress would be forced to back a candidate from the minority community.

What Vajpayee perhaps discounted was the fact that the Grand Old Party places a very a high premium on loyalty. And it is non-negotiable. With the Congress party declining to back Alexander, Andhra Pradesh CM Chandrababu Naidu proposed the then vice-president Krishna Kant as a consensus candidate. Some reports suggest that Krishna Kant was even sounded out by the NDA managers to prepare for nominations.

The Congress was also said to be on board. The young Turk triumvirate of Krishna Kant, along with Chandrasekhar and Mohan Daria, after all, came from the Congress stock. But there was a minor glitch here. Krishna Kant, along with fellow socialist Madhu Limaye, was also instrumental in the fall of the Morarji government when the duo raked up the issue of dual membership of Janata Party members owing allegiance to the RSS.

Like pace bowlers, politicians have a long and a hard memory — they do not forget, and they generally do not forgive. It is not clear what led to the sudden U-turn, but at the last moment APJ Abdul Kalam’s name was proposed by the ruling alliance. Mulayam Singh Yadav has all these years claimed he was instrumental in convincing the BJP to back a Muslim candidate. A stunned Congress had no alternative but to back the NDA candidate.

Only Left parties could muster the courage to challenge Kalam’s nomination even at the risk of taking a hit on their secular credentials, with INA veteran and freedom fighter Captain Lakshmi Sehgal.

A month later, Krishna Kant died of a massive heart attack. He is the only vice-president to have passed away in office.

In the next presidential elections held in 2007, the UPA-Left coordination committee met to finalise a joint candidate at the Prime Minister’s residence — 7, Race Course Road. The discussion veered towards nominating the first woman President of India. The Congress proposed Rajasthan governor Pratibha Patil’s name.

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Only two leaders in the room were aware of Patil’s political antecedents —Sharad Pawar and CPI general secretary AB Bardhan; Pawar because Patil was the leader of opposition in 1978 when Pawar rebelled and broke away from the Congress to become the youngest CM in Maharashtra, and Bardhan for having had his early political grooming in the trade union movement in Nasik. That Patil was a family loyalist to the core who remained with the Congress in the face of adversity was well rewarded in the end.

The 2012 presidential polls evolved around two regional satraps — Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mamata Banerjee.

On the evening of July 12, Mamata Banerjee came out of 10 Janpath after a long meeting with Congress president Sonia Gandhi. Breaking the usual code of silence in dealing with such sensitive matters, she promptly announced that the Congress had proposed Pranab Mukherjee and vice-president Hamid Ansari as a joint UPA candidate.

“By that time it wasn’t clear who Ms. Banerjee’s choice for the top post was. With that one stroke, she made it apparent who wasn’t,” says a senior political analyst who has closely followed the state for many years now.

The next day, Mamata Banerjee was joined by Mulayam Singh Yadav at the latter’s Ashoka Road residence in Delhi. On a sheet of paper that Mulayam carried in his hand, there were three names written in bold letters.

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“APJ Abdul Kalam, Somanth Chaterjee,” said Mulayam, adjusting his glasses and relishing every moment of the media glare, “and Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh. We are offering three names to the UPA to choose from.” He rubbed it in by proposing the name of Congress’s incumbent PM.

“All three are dummies. Mulayam Singh wants to force Congress’s hand here. Of the two names the Congress has suggested, one is a dummy. The other is a senior contender,” said a senior BJP leader, closely observing the turn of events from the other side.

In the next 48 hours, Mulayam held a series of meetings with Congress leaders. In the end, he not only endorsed Pranab Mukherjee’s candidature but quietly left for Lucknow, leaving Mamata Banerjee to fend for herself.

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The Trinamool Congress chief was left with little choice but to support a fellow Bengali in the presidential race.

A month later, Pranab Mukherjee was sworn in as the 13th President of the Republic. Hamid Ansari got another term as the Vice-President of India.

(More Sunday Features)
first published:May 14, 2017, 12:44 IST