After the Euphoria

Wanted a People’s President!
Bibekananda Ray

India now has its 16th president. But Indian President is a legislators' President, not of the people. A Prime Minister or a Chief Minister, or any other government functionary do not represent the people, because although they are directly elected initially as legislators, people have no voice in the award of their portfolios, or elevation. A President, on the contrary, can represent the people, if he or she is directly elected as in Ireland, Russia and France, if he is true to the people, they can say, like the subjects in a Tagore play, "We are all kings in our king's domain". Not being directly elected, India's Presidents have not always been responsive to the people. The 1950 Constitution has made them practically figureheads and virtually puppets of the governments they installed and to recall President, Giani Zail Singh's lament, like 'birds, shackled by golden chains in a cage'.

The 19th July election was the second in India's history; the first was held in 1969, when breaking away from the Indian National Congress, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi launched a new party, Congress and fielded V V Giri who defeated the INC (Syndicate) candidate, Neelam Sanjiva Reddy in a straight contest.

Unanimous choice of President is desirable to make it look like a national choice, but when in the Indian context, he is elected by the majority of a notional US-style Electoral College, comprising elected legislators of both houses of Parliament and State Assemblies, he or she cannot truly be called a people's choice. Considered from this and other angles, India's Presidential election is flawed, because unanimity or majority support of legislators is often achieved by secret and private understanding, even bargaining, and quid pro quo.

In a Presidential poll, eligible legislators' votes have values too, determined by dividing the number of people of the State, as per the latest census, by the number of MLAs or MPs and then by 1000. These value-added votes are questionable and do not reflect the majority view of the electorate, because the legislators are strictly their parties' nominees, not of the people and winners are not decided by the 'first-past-post' British method, not by 'proportional representation'. Secondly, when a Presidential candidate is a political personality, nominated by a party or alliance, a politically hue attaches to his candidature and his functioning from the Rashtrapati Bhavan (i.e. the 82-year-old Viceregal palace) cannot always be above board. For the 19th July presidential contest, smaller opposition parties, without nominating any or their own, actually jumped on the bandwagon of the ruling Party's candidate under various overt and covert political motives and excuses; because they thought it wiser to be warm by being close to the power, burying the hatchet for a while than being out in the cold, being away from it. When a Minister, or an MP, elected on a party's ticket, is elevated to President, it is unlikely that he or she would act neutrally in a crisis, if it affects the fortune or fate of his party.

Thus, an indirect election by legislators' value-added votes is unlikely to throw up the right President. That at most only six of the 15 Presidents hitherto were right and revered by the people is due to the fact that they were nominated for the nation's highest civilian post for their distinctive merit and renown, not as pawns in a political chess board. The first three Presidents, chosen unanimously without any poll - Dr Rajendra Prasad, S Radhakrishnan and Dr Zakir Husain—all were renowned scholars and men of integrity. Decline began with V V Giri, a little known labour leader of Orissa. Gradually, the President's choice was devalued and degenerated into political selection by Indira Gandhi and successive Prime Ministers. The initial tradition returned briefly with the unanimous choice of APJ Abdul Kalam, a missile scientist of global fame, in 2002, but his successor who revealed that a ghostly oracle predicted her undreamt of elevation, was the surprise choice of Sonia Gandhi.

The popular belief that the President is, constitutionally, an automaton, or puppet, of the government or of the ruling party is not correct; he is not bound by the cabinet in certain cases. For example, he can ensure 'equality before law' of citizens under Article 14. Has any President exercised this power, memorably! He can exercise certain powers 'without prior legislative support'. Is there any instance of any President doing it? In these 62 years, the major exercises of the President's power have been commanding the Defence forces to protect the integrity and sovereignty of the country from external attacks, twice by Pakistan and once by China. His most unpopular exercise of power was the proclamation of Internal Emergency at midnight of 25th June 1975, at the instance of, and to save, Indira Gandhi. Being shackled by the cabinet that he had appointed and sworn in, most Presidents have been timid and text-bookish. Only APJ Abdul Kalam dared return the shameless 'office of profit' bill to the cabinet for re-consideration, but when it came back without any change, he had to sign it, meekly.

Why and how a directly elected President is better than an indirectly elected? In six-decade dalliance with the Westminster-type democracy, many State institutions have been degraded. The State police personnel have been prone to corruption and in States like West Bengal subservient to the State's will and intervention, undermining their neutrality and independence, conspicuously in two United and seven Left Front regimes. Sometimes, judges have passed skewed verdicts in sensational cases, to the shock and surprise of people, e.g. those relating to forced land acquisition and return of acquired land to 'unwilling owners' of Singur.

The success of democracy depends on the courage, efficiency and independence of State institutions; if they are corrupted, or made subservient to the government, or ruling party, people get no justice, if the careers of the Central and State police personnel and of the judiciary of the Supreme and subordinate courts are controlled and nurtured by the directly elected President and by Governors on his behalf, they can have more integrity, efficiency and independence. The Presidents and Governors will not normally have any axe to grind with security forces and the judiciary under them; therefore, they will not intervene, if the police personnel and the judiciary draw their wages etc. from the President's or Governors' offices, they will not brook State intervention, or manipulation by ruling parties. A directly elected President will serve the nation better than the indirectly elected one. Not necessarily belonging to a political party, he will be freer to function. He will be the face of India to the rest of the world, as S Radhakrishnan and APJ Abdul Kalam were, if he holds the nation's interests and trust above everything else, he will earn people's reverence. He will be directly responsible and responsive to the people, and not to the Union government that he appoints, or to Parliament, as now. Being chosen by a majority, a People's President will also be the fittest among contestants by virtue of the popular mandate. On 19th July, 4835 MPs and MLAs were eligible to elect the 16th President; in the affidavits to the Election Commission, 1448 of them, i.e. 31 % of them, admitted having been accused in courts of law, some even deserving death sentence. What percentage of the country's total electorate faces similar accusations?

In the Constituent Assembly (1948-'49), direct election of President was debated at length. Members opposing it said that holding a Presidential poll for over half a billion electorate would be a Herculean task and enormously expensive. Its proponents argued that indirect election fell short of democratic ideal, but were overruled. As regards a direct election being a Herculean task, involving enormous expense, it will not be, if the directly elected President's tenure is made co-terminus with the Lok Sabba. If the House is dissolved before five years, a new President can be elected with the new House.


Vol. 45, No. 3, July 29-August 4, 2012