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Mainstream, VOL XLV, No 31

Sociology of Presidential Elections in India

Saturday 21 July 2007, by Vivek Kumar


It is really painful to see how the political elite of the country is making a mockery of public sensibilities while selecting a candidate for the post of the President of India. Overtly undermining the skills and acumen needed to run the highest office of the land they are giving credence of the primordial identities and loyalties of an individual for his/her candidature. Although all the political parties, with different ideologies, are pretending that they are committed to a national cause, they have failed to protect the dignity and authority associated with the President’s Office.

Look at the Congress. The party bosses have very carefully chosen the Congress presidential candidate, Smt Pratibha Patil, because she represents a particular region, religion, caste and most of all gender. It would be impossible for other parties to find a person representing so many institutions and identities. In the process. Smt Patil has already won friends from different ideological groups. By now it has become evident that she is a Marathi, married to a Rajasthani and that too from the Shekhawati region. These characteristics were necessary to neutralise the candidature of the Vice-President of India, Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, for the President’s post.

The Congress’ move has already won support from the ‘Hindu Hriday Samrat´ Bal Thackeray’s Shiv Sena on the pretext of ‘Marathi identity’ or ‘Marathi pride’ although they are both ideologically bitter enemies in Maharashtra politics. The Left parties are supporting Smt Patil’s candidature because of reasons known only to them. They rejected A.P.J. Abdul Kalam for a second term because they wanted someone with more ‘political acumen’ at the head of the state, although they had rejected a knowledgeable statesman like K.R. Narayanan for a second term. No doubt electoral arithmetic ensures that the UPA’s candidate will become the next President of India. But it is a pity that a presidential candidate is chosen on the basis whether he/she is first the representative of the aforesaid institutions of the society. In the event Congress has undermined the specific qualifications required to occupy the highest office the country.

On the other hand Bhairon Singh Shekhawat is going to contest the presidential election as an Independent candidate. The interesting part about Shekhawat is that the NDA led by the Bharatiya Janata Party, of which he used to be a member till a few years back, is supporting his candidature. Can ideological commitment of the Indian political class be so fragile that they can abruptly dissociate from it so easily whenever they want? Is an office above their ideology on the part of the BJP? How can a political party be so defensive about its ideology just for an office? Why did they not contest the elections and reveal how much support their ideology has? Why do they have to take refuge every time in coalition as they are doing in the State and parliamentary elections?

Another group, the so-called Third Front-in-the-making, led by the defeated Chief Ministers of various States also heading State parties, tried unsuccessfully to rope in A.P.J. Abdul Kalam again, without even bothering to take his consent before announcing his name. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam’s case was also pleaded by the politically indifferent masses (who will never bother to cast their votes in an election by standing in the queue) by casting their votes through SMS polls on television. They all forgot how he erred in imposing President’s Rule in Bihar last year.

It is too obvious that the aforesaid political parties were fighting an already lost battle. They were doing so only to play to their constituency, that they stand for secularism. As if by only projecting a Muslim candidate for the President’s post one can establish one’s secular credentials. It is with this symbolism only that last time the NDA led by the BJP was forced to nominate A.P.J. Abdul Kalam as the President of India after the Gujarat carnage. Otherwise, which political formation has the guts to nominate a person who has never participated in the process of democracy except for casting a vote? It is a fact that Abdul Kalam never contested any election from panchayat to Parliament. Even by nomination he did not occupy a political office like the Member of Legislative Council, Rajya Sabha or Governor etc. Even then he was elevated to the President’s post. This was not the first time this symbolism or tokenism was used. Rather the Congress had used this long back when it nominated Dr Zakir Hussain and Dr Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed to the President’s post.

IN fact after the election of the first President of India, Dr Rajendra Prasad, every election for the post of the President in independent India has been used to meet the challenges emerging out of the problems of region, religion, language and caste. Election to the President’s office has been successfully used to neutralise the people’s alienation. As soon as a political party realises that a social group—based on region, or caste—is feeling discriminated against and is underrepresented in the echelons of power and this will be detrimental to the party prospects, it will try to nominate its representative to the post of the President. For instance, regional balance between the North and the South was maintained by appointing a President from the South as the Prime Minister used to be from the North. Dr Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan, V.V. Giri, Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy, R. Venkataraman, who were nominated to the highest office, were from the South. No doubt many of them were political activists as well. Even Dr Zakir Hussain was born in Hyderabad where his father, Fida Hussain, studied law and had a successful career.

Similarly in the 1980s when the Punjab problem was at its peak the Congress appointed Giani Zail Singh—a Sikh—to neutralise the Sikh problem, during the Bhindranwale phase, with the help of the President’s office. Lots of doubts were raised on his choice even then. In 1997 the Congress was forced to elevate K.R. Narayanan to prove its progressive ideology and neutralise the increasing influence of the Bahujan Samaj Party. Though Narayanan fully diserved to be the President of India because of his qualifications, it was projected that he was elevated to the post because he was a Dalit. The media reports suggest that his Dalit identity overpowered all his academic and political qualifications and throughout his tenure he remained the ‘First Dalit President of India’.

This has happened with many other presidential candidates when their primordial identities have scored over their secular achievements and knowledge about social movements, political system, Indian Constitution, foreign relations etc. That is why the ‘Indian President’ has been reduced to a notional head only. Things have come to such a pass that Pratibha Patil had a emphasise that ‘I will not be a rubber stamp President’. But the reality is different, because the powers enshrined in the President’s office are enormous which can effectively check both the executive and judiciary if they don’t deliver. The only question is: how effectively can it be used? In this context it can also be asked: why have all our politicians not strengthened this office even after 60 years of India’s independence?

Table : Names and Tenures of Presidents

S. Names of Presidents Tenure

1. Dr Rajendra Prasad (1884-1963) 26 January 1950 to 13 May 1962

2. Dr Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan (1888-1975) 13 May 1962 to 13 May 1967

3. Dr Zakir Hussain (1897-1969) 13 May 1967 to 3 May 1969

4. Shri Varahagiri Venkat Giri (1894-1980) 3 May 1969 to 20 July 1969 and 24 August 1969 to 24 August 1974

5. Dr Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed (1905-1977) 24 August 1974 to 11 February 1977

6. Shri Neelam Sanjiva Reddy (1913-1996) 25 July 1977 to 25 July 1982

7. Giani Zail Singh (1916-1994) 25 July 1982 to 25 July 1987

8. Shri R. Venkataraman (1910- ) 25 July 1987 to 25 July 1992

9. Dr Shankar Dayal Sharma (1918-1999) 25 July 1992 to 25 July 1997

10. Shri K.R. Narayanan (1920-2005) 25 July 1997 to 25 July 2002

11. Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam (1931- ) 25 July 2002 to 25 July 2007

Therefore, if India has to transform itself into a vibrant democracy then each of its institutions has to perform effectively so that greater checks and balances can be created within the different institutions of democracy. This will happen if our politicians move beyond symbolic representation of people in the name of religion, region, caste etc. and loyalty of a candidate towards a political party as the main criteria while nominating them to prestigious offices. The political elite should not be permitted to use different offices of democracy to suit their ends for long.

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