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In the seat of power


Did you know how the President of India is chosen? In the run up to the election of the country's highest constitutional functionary, what is it we should know?

Ask the average person how a Prime Minister is elected and the chances are he will provide a satisfactory answer. Ask him how a President is chosen and it is more than possible that he looks shame-faced, sheepish or blank.

Why is this so? Well, a part of the reason may have to do with the fact that while the Prime Minister wields real power, the office of the President is perceived as largely ceremonial. Ignorance about presidential elections is also a result of the (by no means flawless) convention that Presidents are chosen by political consensus and not via bitterly fought elections. Finally, presidents are elected by an electoral college in which the value of each vote is arrived at by a mathematical formula, which many people find either too complicated or too tedious to learn.

Neither of these three reasons justify the lack of interest about presidential elections and the procedure for electing the country's highest constitutional functionary. Yes, the Presidency is about pomp and perquisites (a palace of a house, a retinue of liveried servants, post-retirement benefits worth killing for) but it is also much more than this. In the ordinary course of things, a President's job is arguably routine and ceremonial. While his powers are severely circumscribed, he is no rubber stamp.

Dr. A.P.J.Abdul Kalam

For example, all Bills passed by Parliament become Acts only after the President gives assent to them. If he thinks fit, the President has the power to return a Bill to Parliament. But if the Bill is passed a second time (with or without amendments), the President has no option but to give his assent to it. Nevertheless the `power to return', which is essentially a demand that Parliament or Cabinet reconsider its decision is an important discretionary power. Four years ago, President K.R. Narayanan used it to signal his disaffection and eventually dissuade the Centre from imposing President's Rule in Bihar.

Presidents are also called upon, in the absence of precedent and settled convention, to take decisions of serious constitutional import. For instance, former President R. Venkataraman grappled with the question of whether a prime minister who did not enjoy the support of the majority of the Lok Sabha could recommend the dissolution of the House. Such powers vest the President with the important job of providing good counsel and acting as a watchdog of the Constitution. Former President R. Venkataraman likened his role to that of an emergency light, unnoticed for most of the time but turned on in the event of a crisis.

Although the Constitution has a provision for elections to the Presidency, many believe that such polls should not be reduced to bitter political contests. This is because the President stands for everyone. He is a symbol of the country's unity, not a votary of one party or another. This is why many Presidents in this country have occupied office via a process of a broad political consensus.

There have been exceptions of course. In 1969, an extremely acrimonious Presidential election was forced on the country against the background of a split in the Congress. This time around, although there is a wide-ranging consensus around the candidature of Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, the Left parties have propped up Dr. Lakshmi Sahgal. Since the numbers are heavily stacked against her, the contest is likely to be more symbolic than real — not much beyond a formal expression of the Left's dissatisfaction with the candidature of Dr. Kalam.

Dr. Lakshmi Sahgal

Unequal contests such as this take some of the interest away from the exact procedure by which Presidents are elected. It is well known that the electoral college for such elections comprises MPs (of both the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha) and MLAs (of all the legislative assemblies in the country). What is not as well known is how the values of each vote are arrived at.

It is important to state that for a presidential election, the Constitution maintains a parity between the two Houses of Parliament and the State Assemblies — the total votes cast by the former is equal to the total votes cast by the latter. However, for MLAs the value of each vote varies depending on the State they represent. This is arrived at by dividing the total population of a State by the total number of MLAs in that State and dividing that quotient further by 1000. The value of the votes for MPs is the result of the total value of the votes of all State Assemblies divided by the number of MPs in both Houses.

Not that difficult is it? Over the next few weeks, there is going to be considerable public attention on the Presidential election. Although Kalam's victory is a foregone conclusion, it may be a good time to acquaint oneself with some aspects of the Presidency. These include the role of the President and the manner in which he is elected.

The role of the President

The President of India is the Head of the State and the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces.

The President is elected by members of an Electoral College consisting of elected members of both Houses of Parliament and Legislative Assemblies of the states, with suitable weightage given to each vote. His term of office is five years.

Among other powers, the President can proclaim an emergency in the country if he is satisfied that the security of the country or of any part of its territory is threatened whether by war or external aggression or armed rebellion.

When there is a failure of the constitutional machinery in a state, he can assume to himself all or any of the functions of the government of that state.

Presidential roll call

Dr. Rajendra Prasad Jan. 26, 1950 - May 13, 1962
Dr. S. Radhakrishnan May 13, 1962 - May 13, 1967
Dr. Zakir Hussain May 13, 1967 - May 3, 1969
Varahagiri Venkata Giri Aug 24, 1969 - August 24, 1974
Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed Aug 24 1974 - February 11,1977
Neelam Sanjiva Reddy July 25, 1977 - July 25, 1982
Giani Zail Singh July 25, 1982 - July 25, 1987
VR. Venkataraman July 25, 1987 - July 25, 1992
Dr. S.D. Sharma July 25, 1992 - July 25, 1997
K. R. Narayanan July 25, 1997 - July 25, 2002

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