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12 June, 2012

Quest for a new President

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

India is looking for a successor to President Pratibha Patil, whose five-year term ends next month. Although the office of the head of state is largely ceremonial, the current quest has special significance since the new president may be able to influence the choice of the next prime minister.   

The main contenders for power at the national level, the Congress, which heads the ruling United Progressive Alliance, and the Bharatiya Janata Party, which heads the opposition National Democratic Alliance, are, therefore, moving warily.

Nominations will open on June 13 and close on June 20 but the UPA and NDA are yet to choose their candidates. The BJP has said it will take a position only after the Congress reveals its mind.

The electoral college that chooses the president comprises elected members of the two houses of parliament, who number about 800, and elected members of the legislative assemblies of the states, whose number runs into several thousand. The values of the votes of the MPs and MLAs differ widely since they are pegged to the number of people they represent.

In the early years of the republic, the Congress could get its nominee elected smoothly as it dominated both parliament and the state legislatures.  With the political spectrum highly fragmented, it now needs the support of not only its coalition partners but also a few more parties to see its nominee through.

There have been occasions when the major political rivals joined hands to facilitate smooth election, as when a wide consensus emerged in 1997 in favour of KR Narayanan, a diplomat-turned-politician, making it possible for the distinguished Dalit to become the first member of that marginalised community to adorn the nation’s highest office.

Five years ago, Pratibha Patil’s candidature generated much enthusiasm across the political spectrum as it provided an opportunity to install the first woman president. At that time the Left parties, who were backing the UPA government from outside, extracted from the Congress a promise to consider a person of their choice for the post of vice-president. They picked retired diplomat Hamid Ansari.

Some vice-presidents have been elected president. The BJP blocked serious consideration of Ansari’s candidature for the office this time by making known its opposition in advance. Apparently to stave off charges of communal motivation, the Hindu right-wing party floated the name of former president APJ Abdul Kalam.

The BJP’s fondness for Kalam rests on his reputation as the man who headed the country’s missile programme. Its proposal that he be brought back had no takers. Barring the first president, Rajendra Prasad, no one has had a second term so far.

The constitution mandates that the president must act on the advice of the council of ministers headed by the prime minister. But the appointment of prime minister is a decision he has to take on his own.

When a party or combination of parties commands an absolute majority in the Lok Sabha, the President has no option but to invite its leader to form the government. However, recent parliamentary elections have invariably thrown up ‘hung’ houses.

Since the Left parties withdrew their support to the first Manmohan Singh government on the issue of civil nuclear agreement with the United States, the UPA has survived in office with the support extended from outside by a host of parties like the Bahujan Samaj Party, the Samajwadi Party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal.

State Assembly elections of the last five years point to a weakening of the Congress and its allies like Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam of Tamil Nadu. In the circumstances, the strength of the UPA may well be depleted in the Lok Sabha elections of 2014. The Congress, however, can derive comfort from the fact that the BJP and its NDA allies are also not on a strong wicket. In several states, the Congress and the BJP are already minor players.

In the circumstances, the smaller national parties and the regional parties will be able to play a critical role in the next Lok Sabha. The leaders of some of these parties are known to entertain ambitions of emerging as prime ministerial candidates.

If there is room to doubt the majority claims of the rival contenders, the president will be required to exercise discretion based on his/her assessment of who is in a position to garner majority support in the house. Many small parties may be inclined to go with whoever is given the first opportunity to form a government. The situation demands the president must be a person with mature political judgment. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, June 12, 2012.

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