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As the race for the post of the 13th President of India heats up, the political class is once again confronted with the challenge of putting the right person in Rashtrapati Bhavan. All kinds of parameters are being set for a suitable choice: an "apolitical" person, someone who is not "a rubber stamp", a non-Congress nominee, someone of "stature", a Muslim, a Christian, a south Indian, an east Indian. . . The suggestions are so diverse that someone who satisfies even 50 per cent of the qualifications being bandied about has not been born yet!
Ironically, despite starting out with pious intentions, political parties have often let petty considerations overwhelm better judgment to take decisions they later rued. Some incumbents turned into something of an embarrassment by getting embroiled in unnecessary controversies. Others proved too feisty for the government of the day, resulting in heart-stopping moments that had constitutional experts reaching for the statute book.
Rashtrapati Bhavan's hall of fame covers a broad spectrum band of personalities. At one end are men of eminence like Zakir Hussain and S Radhakrishnan. They were educationists, authors and philosophers who boasted of respected degrees from reputed universities and dignified their office by staying aloof as ceremonial figures. At the other end are those who never quite acquired the gravitas associated with their position and remained self seekers indulging in small-minded games that politicians like to play.
Where Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed demeaned the office with his spineless acquiescence to the declaration of Emergency in June 1975, signing the proclamation at midnight even before Indira Gandhi had got her cabinet to approve it, Zail Singh took sycophancy to a new low with his now-famous quote, "If my leader (Indira Gandhi) had said I should pick up a broom and be a sweeper, I would have done that. She chose me to be President. "
In fact, Zail Singh's tenure proved to be the stormiest yet. It was marked by constant friction with his mentor's son and successor, Rajiv Gandhi. Their relationship became so hostile that Singh even contemplated dismissing Rajiv on grounds of corruption after the Bofors scandal hit the headlines. The plan was affirmed a few years later by none other than P V Narasimha Rao in his deposition to the Jain Commission inquiring into Rajiv's assassination. Had it had gone through, it would have unleashed a full-blown constitutional crisis for no President had dared to test the boundaries of his discretionary powers in this manner. Fortunately, Zail Singh abandoned the move in time.
Later Presidents like R Venkataraman, K R Narayanan and APJ Abdul Kalam redeemed Rashtrapati Bhavan from the depths to which it had sunk during the Zail Singh years. Venkataraman sagaciously steered the country through the nascent years of coalition governments. Narayanan raised the bar for the exercise of presidential discretion, intervening several times to nudge the government of the day away from decisions that would have stirred up constitutional storms. Despite his known Leftist inclinations, Narayanan played fair. Just as he stopped the Vajpayee government from dismissing Rabri Devi in Bihar in 1998 and imposing President's Rule, he refused to allow the predecessor government, headed by I K Gujral and supported by the Left, to throw out the Kalyan Singh-led BJP government in UP in 1997.
If Narayanan was an "activist" President, Kalam came to be known as the "people's" President for his efforts to make the imposing colonial mansion on Raisina Hill more relevant for the aam aadmi. He will be remembered for the informality he brought to Rashtrapati Bhavan and his outreach projects through computers, video conferences and other modern communications technologies.
Yet, his term too saw controversies, particularly after the government changed and the Congress-led UPA replaced the BJP which had put him there. One was the furore over reports that he had sought clarifications on Sonia Gandhi's citizenship status after Janata Party chief Subramanian Swamy flooded Rashtrapati Bhavan with papers questioning her right to be PM. The other was his tame approval to the unconstitutional decision to impose President's Rule in Bihar in 2005 without giving Nitish Kumar a chance to prove his majority in the assembly. In a move reminiscent of Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed's midnight signature, Kalam signed the order faxed to him while on a state visit to Russia.
The graph has dipped again, unfortunately, with the present incumbent, Pratibha Patil, winding up a lacklustre term with a row over a "retirement home" being built for her by the government on defence land in Pune. To be sure, she had big shoes to fill but she has lost the goodwill that accrued to her as the country's first woman President because of reports that she tried to manoeuvre a farewell gift for herself.
She has returned the land to the army but the experience has made the political class wary of taking hasty decisions based purely on considerations of caste, creed, gender, etc. Patil's name was pulled out of the hat at the last moment when UPA 1 and its Left allies could not come to an agreement on a consensus candidate. Why not a woman, someone asked. Congress emissaries quickly launched a hunt for women probables and zeroed in on Pratibha Patil. She was the Rajasthan governor at that time and few knew her other than politicians from Maharashtra and CPI leader A B Bardhan, commander of a tiny rump of the Left Front. With Bardhan giving his full-throated endorsement, the decision was sealed over a cup of tea. Patil's perspicacity was never tested because the UPA won a convincing victory in the 2009 general elections. But the political scenario is changing rapidly. With both national parties, the Congress and the BJP, caught in a serious leadership crisis and steadily losing ground, there is a strong possibility that the 2014 election will throw up a badly fractured mandate that will tilt the balance in favour of disparate regional forces. Government formation is likely to be a nightmare with established political conventions and norms coming under severe strain and the parliamentary system being challenged like never before. The President may then be called upon to play a role not envisaged in the Constitution amid efforts to cobble together a coalition that can give a semblance of governance. Not only will the next resident of Rashtrapati Bhavan have to show great skill, political wisdom and a thorough understanding of constitutional law to tackle the challenge, he (or she) may even have to pitch in with quiet advice on administrative and policy issues.
"The polity is in a state of flux because of the multipolarity that has emerged, " said CPI(M) leader Nilotpal Basu. "This has created uncertainty. The next President will play a crucial role. " These are testing times for the entire political class. The system is in upheaval and a period of instability and confusion looms ahead. Somewhere in the dim recesses of their minds, political parties have realised that the next President may have to be more than a ceremonial figurehead and that this time, they will have to rise above the fractiousness that marks their usual discourse to choose more carefully than they have done in the past. So far, the Congress has shown great maturity by shedding its arrogance and steadily working for a consensus. The choice seems to be narrowing down to two contenders: finance minister Pranab Mukherjee and Vice President Hamid Ansari. Both are distinguished persons with a wealth of experience and the credentials to give the office the dignity and stature it needs. The emergence of a dark horse candidate is not ruled out. Whoever wins the race, hopefully, the political class will choose wisely.
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