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BRP Bhaskar: Waiting for a new president
May 16, 2017
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

India’s next President will be Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s personal choice, unless the Bharatiya Janata Party or, more importantly, its ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, bungles badly.

Pranab Mukherjee’s five-year term as President ends on July 24. The Election Commission will soon set in motion the process of choosing his successor shortly.

As constitutional head of state, the President is required to act on the advice of the council of ministers at all times. But at some critical junctures, as, for instance, when a new Prime Minister has to be inducted, the President has to act on his own.

The President is elected by an electoral college comprising elected members of the two houses of Parliament and of the Assemblies of the states and Union Territories.

The 776 MPs and 4,120 MLAs each command half of the electoral college votes. The value of an MP’s vote is 708 but that of MLAs varies from seven in Sikkim to 208 in Uttar Pradesh, as it is pegged to the state’s population.

In the early years of Independence, the Congress could get its nominee elected as President with a comfortable margin as it dominated Parliament and the State Assemblies. As it declined, and a fragmented national polity emerged, the Congress has to choose its candidate after wide consultations to ensure smooth election.

When the Janata Party, which was cobbled together to take on Indira Gandhi’s Emergency regime, held sway at the Centre and in the northern states, it was able to get its nominee, Neelam Sanjiva Reddy, elected as President. Eight years earlier Mrs Gandhi had blocked his election as the Congress candidate by switching her support to VV Giri who was contesting as an independent.

The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance which was in power at the Centre at the time of the 2002 election was in a hopeless minority in the electoral college. The BJP and the Congress both backed retired missile scientist APJ Abdul Kalam, and he became the President.

The Congress and its United Progressive Alliance partners commanded only 33 per cent of the electoral college votes when it picked Pranab Mukherjee as its candidate in 2012. The NDA, which was close behind with a vote share of 28 per cent, fielded former Congressman and Lok Sabha Speaker PA Sangma. Mukherjee collected almost twice as many electoral college votes as Sangma, thanks to the support of a host of smaller parties.

Having won 282 seats in the 542-member Lok Sabha in the 2014 poll and 312 seats in the 403-member UP Assembly in this year’s elections, the BJP is now way ahead of the Congress. With its NDA partners it commands about 47.5 per cent of the electoral votes valued at about 1.1 million.

But the non-BJP parties are in no mood to give up without a fight. Congress President Sonia Gandhi has been in talks with other opposition parties to pick a consensus candidate. Those under consideration include former Bengal Governor Gopal Krishna Gandhi, former Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar, Janata Dal (United) President Sharad Yadav and National Congress Party leader Sharad Pawar.

Even if Shiv Sena, an NDA partner which revels in giving Modi occasional pinpricks refuses to back its nominee, as in the last two presidential elections, the BJP is in a position to cover the small shortfall in its electoral college majority with the help of regional parties.

Three southern parties, All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (vote share about 5.5 per cent), YSR Congress (vote share about two per cent) and Telangana Rashtra Samithi (vote share 1.5 per cent) and Odisha’s Biju Janata Dal (vote share 3.5 per cent) are believed to be ready to go with Modi.

Some of them may want to know who the BJP’s candidate for the office is before committing themselves. Few expect Modi to favour party veterans Lal Krishna Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi whom he has sidelined. Other names doing the rounds include those of three women, Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan, Union Minister Uma Bharti and Jharkhand Governor Draupadi Murmu, who is an Adivasi.

In the last three years the RSS has tightened its grip on the BJP and placed its hard core leaders in constitutional positions in several states. It is, therefore, time to ask if the next President will be an organisation man from that outfit.

RSS chief, Mohan Bhagwat’s name was proposed by Shiv Sena for the office of President. Oddly enough it was endorsed by a Muslim Congress leader from the south. Bhagwat said he was not interested in the post. That only means he prefers to be king-maker rather than the king.

One hopes Modi and Bhagwat do not lose sight of the fact that the President, who symbolises the majesty of the republic, needs to be a unifying figure.

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 The author is a political analyst of reckoning

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