Whoever believed that the election of the President of India was only a ceremonial exercise will now be sitting up and taking note of how politicised even this election can get. All those who hoped that despite the ongoing bitter rivalry across all political parties, politicians will, for once, rise above petty one-upmanship tactics are perhaps realising that in politics no opportunity can be passed and nothing is so sacrosanct to give up deriving political mileage out of it. How else should one understand the open defiance of a key ally of the UPA in going against the Government’s choice of Presidential candidates!
But, is it really the defiance that is causing heart burn amongst the ruling Congress? Or is there something about the timing, the announcement coming shortly after the TMC chief exchanged a bouquet of roses with the Congress president, which has upset the Congress? Is the measured silence an indication of the backdoor channels working overtime to gather intelligence about the obvious conspiracy which appears to be underway? Or has the announcement of the Prime Minister being a possible choice of Presidential candidate so shocked the Government that it is deliberately maintaining its stoic demeanour? Presidential candidates have in the past also been announced last minute, but did the Congress misjudge the changed political environment and miscalculate the need to build early consensus? Is not the Congress guilty of the ‘clumsy handling’ of the situation it is being accused of?
Regardless of what the reality may be, a few things are now clear. Firstly, UPA’s relationship with TMC has drastically deteriorated and with the TMC having questioned the Prime Minister’s leadership, their continuing as an ally is risky. Second, it’s about time the Government stand-up for itself, regain its lost political authority and the loss of faith for which no one besides them are responsible. It is equally important for the UPA to catch the bluff of its blackmailing allies, even if that means risking its own survival. The future of UPA-II may be bleak (although it survived without TMC in UPA-I), but despite that its time the TMC is put in its place and not allowed to hold the nation to ransom. No doubt, if this Government is to continue, the political arithmetic is about to change with many additions and some subtractions. But it is time for the Congress to weigh its decisions based not on the short-term gains, but the long-term loss of face it will have if it tolerates such political belligerence and transgressions.
The question on everyone’s mind is – why has the Presidential election become so important and politicised this time?
Under our Constitution, the executive powers of theUnionare vested in the President. And while we have an elected President, we follow a system where the President is only the Constitutional head and the real powers are exercised by the Council of Ministers, headed by the Prime Minister. In fact, on all matters that form a part of his functions, the President is bound to act on the advice of the Council of Ministers.
However, despite these limitations, Constitutional interpretation provides that there are two matters on which the President still has the authority to act without consulting the Council of Ministers. One is the right of dissolution of Parliament and second is the authority to invite a person for appointment as Prime Minister. It is the second matter, which gives the President limited subjective discretion, which has drawn so much attention to the current Presidential elections. When there is a clear political majority, the President has no option but to invite the party with the clear majority to form the Government. But if no party has a clear majority then, the President is at liberty to use his own judgment as to which party or leader he may invite to stake claim of the Government, provided only that the person the President summons, is eventually likely to command a majority by some coalition or compromise with other parties. Exercising these discretionary powers, President S.S. Sharma invited the BJP to form the Government in 1996, which was repeated by President K.R. Narayanan in 1999.
The above assumes great relevance in our current environment of delicate coalition politics. At this time, neither of the two national parties appears confident about securing a clear majority in the 2014 Parliamentary elections.
With a fractured government and the increased role that regional parties are likely to play in the next general elections, the President will play a crucial role in deciding who and which coalition partner is worthy of staking a claim to the government. In such circumstances, a President, who previously owed allegiance to a particular political party can be helpful for that party. Although, there have been instances where loyalists have turned their backs on their erstwhile parties.
It is necessary to clarify that the debate on whether a Presidential candidate should be political or non-political is a red herring. Despite being just a formal head, the President performs a political job and many past Presidents also held cabinet positions which neither disqualified them for the foremost Constitutional post nor necessarily helped their candidacy. Also, the drama around the Presidential election was undoubtedly avoidable, especially when the need of the hour is for governance and policy measures that can lift the sinking economy. But, to say that these events have lowered the dignity of the office of President appears slightly far fetched. Shortly, all of this will be forgotten and first citizen of the country will enjoy all the stature and dignity bestowed upon them by the Constitution.
And while 2014 is far, at hand today is a crisis which in many ways can once again be attributed to bad political management and failure on the part of Congress party. One hopes the Congress quickly starts to rethink its politics, its equation with its coalition partners, future relationship with regional parties and allies and resolve its leadership crisis. Only if the Congress comes up with a coherent political strategy before the next Parliamentary elections can it even hope to derive any benefit from the next occupant of the Rashtrapati Bhavan. In a few weeks, the Presidential elections will pass and all the drama can be attributed to the omens around electing India’s 13th President. And regardless of who will eventually walk the well manicured Mughal Gardens, its time the Congress wakes up to smell the roses!
Satvik Varma is an advocate & corporate counsel based in New Delhi.
First Published in Millennium Post, Daily Newspaper, on 16th June, 2012.