Harish Khare

The choice of the next President is less about this or that individual and more about a vision of the presidency under the Constitution of India.

IN THE evening of November 25, four of the seniormost leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party Atal Bihari Vajpayee, L.K. Advani, Rajnath Singh, and Jaswant Singh and George Fernandes trooped up to Rashtrapati Bhavan. Nothing very unusual. After all, the BJP leaders have made a habit of marching up the Raisina Hill, with this or that complaint against the United Progressive Alliance Government. What was, however, unusual was that the BJP top brass avoided the media. The whole visit remained shrouded in mystery. This silence and media blackout are so out of sync with the BJP's habits and preferences that they have sparked considerable speculation in political circles. The only hint came from the BJP president, Mr. Rajnath Singh, who was reported to have said in Varanasi that the party could support President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam for a second term.

On the other hand, President Kalam has been reported to have declared, more than once, that he is keen to return to a life less exalted and less ceremony-ridden than the one he has led these four and half years in the palatial Rashtrapati Bhavan. He must be aware of the convention in place since Dr. Rajendra Prasad's second term that no President gets to stay more than five years in Rashtrapati Bhavan. Yet it has been noted that there has been no contradiction from Rashtrapati Bhavan to the speculation that the BJP has offered him support for a second term.

If Mr. Rajnath Singh has been quoted correctly, it would appear that the BJP has taken the first and a unilateral step towards politicising the selection of the next President, an event still a good seven months away. The BJP and rest of its political friends in the National Democratic Alliance do not have the numbers in the Presidential Electoral College to get their "man" elected, without support either from the Congress and its allies or from the Left Front.

If the BJP leadership thinks Mr. Kalam deserves a second term, it has not deemed it necessary to begin the process of consultation towards evolving a consensus on his candidature. Instead, it has engaged in one-upmanship, dragging the President into partisan politics. In the process, the BJP has only deepened the suspicion in non-BJP quarters that the President reciprocates the party's partisan claims on him. Also, the BJP leadership seems to have turned its back on Vice-President Bhairon Singh Shekhawat and his claims for a presidential innings.

Given the current stranglehold of cunning and cleverness on the party's collective thought process, it is quite possible that the BJP leaders have given in to the temptation of scoring a few brownie points in the coming Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections. While in the capital the party remains opposed to any attempt to ameliorate the Muslims' conditions as an exercise in appeasement, it could claim the benefit of the doubt from the Muslim voters by positioning itself as a champion of a second term for Mr. Kalam. Inversely any reluctance on the part of the Congress to endorse the BJP's idea of a second term for Mr. Kalam could, then, be hawked as the UPA's insincerity towards the minorities. The Samajwadi Party should have no reason to complain about the BJP's move. Low thinking, after all, is the fashion of the day. The Kalam gambit can only point to the growing convergence between the BJP and the Samajwadi Party in the run-up to the Uttar Pradesh Assembly polls.

Whatever the motives and calculations, the choice of the new head of the republic is too serious a business to be dictated by electoral manoeuvring in a province. After all a Rashtrapati Bhavan incumbent has come to acquire a critical role much beyond what has been envisaged for him or her in the Constitution in these times of shaky coalitions. But given the grand principles of parliamentary democracy and Cabinet government, the President cannot acquire a political status, whatever the vagaries of the party system.

When K.R. Narayanan finished his first term in Rashtrapati Bhavan, some of his well-wishers thought he was in good enough health to deserve a second term. He was looked upon by many as a "secular" antidote to the sangh parivar. The Congress, then in the Opposition, was not averse to the idea but knew that the decision had to be unanimous and that the major initiative should come from the ruling party. However, Prime Minister Vajpayee rightly and righteously told the President that his party was not prepared to depart from the established "no second term" convention. Nonetheless, the Congress was also clearly opposed to P.C. Alexander's presidential candidature, which was seen to be a factional project within the BJP.

At that time, Mr. Vajpayee's prime ministerial establishment asserted and asserted correctly that the Prime Minister of the day should have the last word in the choice of the next President. The incumbent Prime Minister must feel comfortable with the man or woman whom he is going to aid and advise on a daily basis. No Prime Minister should have any reason to feel that Rashtrapati Bhavan's institutional ear is being lent to his political rivals, in and outside the ruling party.

Unfortunately, even after so many years a section of political opinion prefers to think of Rashtrapati Bhavan as a rival source of power, a lever to curb and contain the Prime Minister. This thinking began in 1967 when the Jana Sangh-Swatantra Party combine proposed to the incumbent Chief Justice of India, K. Subba Rao, that he become the Opposition's presidential candidate. The Chief Justice instantly accepted the suggestion; a decision that saddened all those purists who thought the judiciary and judges ought to keep their distance from political disputations of the day. The Jana Sangh-Swatantra Party leadership thought that as President, Subba Rao would be ideally placed to rein in the socialist Indira Gandhi.

The same anti-Prime Minister calculus came into play when in 1969, Indira Gandhi's rivals in the Congress opted for Sanjeeva Reddy, forcing her to counter with V.V. Giri's candidature. For a while, Gaini Zail Singh flirted with the idea of autonomy vis-à-vis Rajiv Gandhi.

It is difficult to avoid the impression that if the BJP leadership is willing to violate the "no second term" convention in favour of Mr. Kalam, it is only because it has concluded that the incumbent President has demonstrated a (healthy and desirable) willingness to embarrass the UPA Government. In the sangh parivar-manufactured political folklore, it was President Kalam who stymied Sonia Gandhi's prime ministerial ambition by asking her for "citizenship" papers. These last two and half years the BJP leaders have often sought to embroil Rashtrapati Bhavan in their partisan manoeuvrings against the Manmohan Singh Government, even when the party has been disrupting Parliament's institutional rhythm. It has been noted that Rashtrapati Bhavan has rarely acted to deny the NDA's partisan interpretations of the presidential views on this or that political quarrel of the day.

It is incumbent upon the entire political class including the BJP to turn its collective back on the idea of a "political" Rashtrapati Bhavan. Though the Constitution provides for a titular head of the republic, the President ipso facto becomes a source of great influence, wisdom, and statesmanship. It would not hurt a Prime Minister to know that there is a person in Rashtrapati Bhavan who may ask one or two uncomfortable questions; restraint and reasonableness are desirable attributes in the exercise of authority and power. But under no circumstances ought a President to become or be seen to have become a source of aid and comfort to the enemies of the very Prime Minister on whose aid and advice he is enjoined to function. An intelligent Prime Minister can always use presidential advice to his and the nation's advantage.

Let it be clear that the choice of the next President is less about this or that individual and more about a vision of the presidency under the Constitution of India. As our constitutional democracy deepens, the political class must train itself to operate within the institutional boundaries, including that of the office of the President of the Republic.