Debating the role of the President in the Constituent Assembly on 21 July 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru summed up the consensus view, saying, “We did not give him any real powers but we have made his position one of great authority and dignity.” He is first and foremost, a “symbol” of the country, one who, despite not having the powers of the American President, is, like him, the Commander-in-Chief of the defence forces. What Nehru chose not to focus on in his speech that day was the crucial political role inbuilt by the Constitution into the Presidency. The sheer moral certitudes attached to the Presidency and its ceremonial aspects have always served to obfuscate its key political function ever since and fostered a somewhat romantic view that the Presidency is somehow meant to be an apolitical office.
The politicians though know exactly what this is about as they head into an uncertain period of political turbulence leading up to the 2014 general election and this is why the stakes are so high in this Presidential election. Whether it is Pranab Mukherjee or Hamid Ansari or any other name that comes up, the next President will have a particularly delicate role in the formation of the next government in 2014, given that the most reasonable guess in Delhi currently is that of another hung house, open to the most dextrous alliance. It is in periods of political uncertainty that the President has to play a particularly political role as the arbiter of constitutional propriety. This is why the current political debate is so intense, not simply for the sheer imagery and symbolism of the office.
The relatively settled nature of the ruling alliance and Pratibha Patil’s quiet tenure until recently has meant that it is easy to forget just how crucial a swing factor the President can be. For example, in 1979, Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy’s decision to call for a general election instead of asking Jagjeevan Ram to form a government after the Charan Singh government fell, led to Janata Party President Chandrashekhar calling him a “Lilliputian Fuehrer” as he joined Atal Behari Vajpayee and Morarji Desai to call for his impeachment.
Secondly, ever since Rajendra Prasad presided in his private capacity over the opening ceremony of the reconstructed Somnath temple in 1951 despite Nehru’s objections, it has been clear that the President has the capacity to act as a touchstone for key disjunctures in major political debates. In the 1950s, Prasad’s opposition to the Hindu Code Bill led to a legislation that was less far-reaching than Nehru had wanted. Similarly, in 1997 President KR Narayanan returned advice from Prime Minister Gujral to dismiss the Kalyan Singh government in Uttar Pradesh and in 1998 advice from Prime Minister Vajpayee to dismiss the Rabri Devi government in Bihar (in both cases, the respective Prime Ministers accepted his decision). In 2002, disapproving letters from Narayanan’s desk to the Vajpayee government put pressure on the Prime Minister on the Gujarat riots. It wasn’t quite Zail-Singh versus Rajiv Gandhi where things seemed to reach a breaking point in the late-1980s, but the President’s pro-activeness in each case did act as a vital counterpoint to the political instincts of the government of the day.
Thirdly, this election is also vital for the Congress’s image in the sense that it does not quite have the numbers this time like it did for Pratibha Patil’s election. In 2007, a more settled and coherent UPA simply put up a candidate and that was that. This time the political context is entirely different and it genuinely needs support from the allies in the complex electoral college that will elect the President. After humiliating reverses in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Delhi the party is on the defensive, its numbers in the states are wobbly and it cannot quite afford the embarrassment of putting up a candidate that ends up losing. That would be a political bloody nose the ruling party can ill-afford and this is why it needs to be sure of the temperature and make some honest calculations before it fields a candidate.
Fourth, the symbolism matters. The recent RTI revelations about President Pratibha Patil’s foreign trips and the embarrassing disclosures on her post-retirement house have meant that her tenure is ending, as it began, in controversy. She has denied all the accusations but there is a clamour for a candidate who will increase the stature of the office, rather than the other way round.
Previous elections such as the APJ Abdul Kalam-Laxmi Sehgal contest in 2002 also created much political chatter but the dominoes have fallen in such a way that this presidential election has assumed greater importance than any in the past three decades.