Should there be a President of India?

The latest presidential nomination casts doubt on the selection process used to fill the position.

Indian Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee (c ) addresses the media representatives
Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee is set to become India's 13th president [EPA]

The election of India’s next President was described as a foregone conclusion from the moment the Congress party, which leads the ruling coalition, announced its candidate: the finance minister, Pranab Mukherjee. Yet a bitter contest also ensued. A challenge was mounted by the former Speaker of the Lower House, PA Sangma, later supported by the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party. Reports speculated on deals being made by various parties in exchange for their support for the ruling party’s chosen candidate.

The contest complicated India’s coalition politics. A member of the ruling coalition, Trinamool Congress, from Mukherjee’s home state of West Bengal, refused to back him, while a party from the opposition coalition declined to back Sangma. Sangma had to resign from his own party, which is in the ruling coalition, to run for the Presidency. Meanwhile allegations of corruption were made against Mukherjee – which he denied. The process of choosing the “first citizen” of India degenerated into undignified politicking – the very thing it is meant to be above.

If the answer to who will be the next President of India was already known, a more pertinent question at this juncture might have been to ask why India needs a President at all, and by what process such a person should be selected. What is the purpose today of such a supposedly ceremonial head of state, and is the position by now so devalued as to be beyond redemption? 

 Frost over the World – Pranab Mukherjee

Discussions about the origins of the position of President of India usually refer to the moment when India became a republic in 1950. As the constitution of independent India came into force, the position of the British monarch was apparently replaced by an Indian ceremonial head of state. But this is hardly a satisfactory explanation. Why did India need an equivalent of the British monarch? Britain does not have a written constitution, and the position of its monarch evolved over several centuries through conflict with parliament over power. This is not India’s history. There may be a case for replicating a constitutional structure from another country, but the case must be made, and made in terms of India’s politics and constitutional requirements.

Entwined in party politics 

It is often said that the President of India is a ceremonial representative of India, above party politics. But that notion has been undermined many times, not merely by this year’s contest. Of  the12 Presidents so far, nine were politicians, starting with the first President, Rajendra Prasad. Nor did they all rise to the elevated heights suggested by the rhetoric surrounding the Presidential office. In 1975, President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed promptly signed the declaration of Emergency as requested by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, clearing the way for her to rule India as a personal dictatorship. To be fair, the cabinet and parliament rolled over as well, as did the Supreme Court, which reversed the decision against her election. Zail Singh, another Congress party loyalist who was made President by Indira Gandhi, was reported to have said that he would have swept floors had she required that of him. In the event, he appointed her son Rajiv – a greenhorn in politics – as Prime Minister after her assassination (ignoring precedent and thwarting the ambitions of senior cabinet minister Pranab Mukherjee).

Apart from political cronyism, the appointment of Presidents has often smacked of tokenism. Four of the 12 Presidents were Muslim – an over-representation of a minority group which was found by the recent Sachar Committee report to be significantly deprived in terms of development and representation as a whole. Muslims also suffered the pogroms in Gujarat in 2002, in which the state government was widely alleged to have been complicit, yet its leader remains in power and is seen as a future prime ministerial candidate. Zail Singh was a Sikh President, yet Sikhs were massacred after Indira Gandhi’s assassination by her Sikh bodyguards and the victims have never received justice. Indeed, Zail Singh himself was reported to have been involved in the meddling in the state politics in Punjab in concert with Indira Gandhi and her son Sanjay, which created the extremist crisis in Punjab in the first place. 

Zail Singh was a Sikh President, yet Sikhs were massacred after Indira Gandhi’s assassination by her Sikh bodyguards and the victims have never received justice.”

Not all forms of “tokenism” are without some positive side-effects, such as breaking barriers and setting up role models. However, it rather depends on the candidate and whether there was any real impact on the group in question. KR Narayanan, a diplomat before joining politics, was the first person of the “untouchable” caste to become President. Dalits, as members of the lowest castes are called, remain vulnerable and disadvantaged as a group, and in terms of actual political power the community arguably gained more from the rise of Mayawati and the Bahujan Samaj Party in Uttar Pradesh. Sangma, the opposition’s candidate for President, served as Speaker of the Lower House, but has also presented himself as the first “tribal” Presidential candidate.

The incumbent President, Pratibha Patil, was the first woman to hold the position. While the fact that she is a woman was highlighted at the time of her election, it is doubtful that being female was the real reason for the Congress party choosing her. There are many women of accomplishment in India who might have fit that bill; Patil was a little-known party loyalist with a fairly undistinguished career, a trait she continued as President. Corruption allegations against her surfaced when her candidacy was announced, but political arithmetic ensured her victory and the office precluded any investigation. Needless to say, there is no discernible impact of Patil’s presidency on the position of women in Indian society.

A party man

Pranab Mukherjee’s candidature is deeply problematic with regard to many of these factors. He resigned from the Cabinet in order to run for the Presidency, but that was merely a formality. The fact is that he is a party man, who belonged to the Congress party for decades except for a brief period of rebellion when he had fallen out with Rajiv Gandhi, former prime minister and husband of the present party leader. Indeed, the Nehru/Gandhi family’s calculation behind nominating Mukherjee is likely to have been political compulsion rather than trust in a family retainer: Mukherjee has always been his own man. 

 Riz Khan – An Interview: Pranab Mukherjee

Some say Mukherjee has been chosen precisely because he is politically partisan, which will come in handy for the Congress in the event of an inconclusive election result in 2014. Others opine he has been “kicked upstairs” as he had to be removed from the Cabinet but cannot be let go as he is too much of an insider – better have him inside the tent than outside, the logic goes. The notion that the “first citizen” of the country is meant to be above party politics appears to have been dispensed with without even the usual disingenuous gestures.

Moreover, anti-corruption activists in India have accused Mukherjee of being tainted with corruption – a charge he denies. However, the whispers of corruption have dogged Mukherjee for many years, and at far higher levels of political power, given his career, than Pratibha Patil. 

Sangma has invoked the historic election of 1969, when Indira Gandhi’s nominee VV Giri defeated the official candidate of the Congress to win the Presidency. If members of the electoral college cast votes of conscience, the result is impossible to predict. But in another respect this Presidential election is already historic. While both Mukherjee and Sangma are politicians, neither is considered to be an obedient servant of any political party. Nor is either likely to treat the Presidency as a gentle retirement. Mukherjee is a wily politician, known to be a “survivor”, with longstanding personal political ambition. Whether by considered reflection or practical reality, the office of the President of India is at a moment of change.

Sarmila Bose is Senior Research Associate, Centre for International Studies, Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford.