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EFSAS Commentary

Showcasing the vibrancy of Indian democracy, the upcoming Presidential elections have spawned huge interest and political activity


Hectic political activity began this week after the Election Commission of India announced on 15 June that voting to elect the next President of India would be held on 18 July and the results announced on 21 July. The amount of interest that an indirect election to choose the Constitutional Head of State, whose office has often been alluded to as being little more than ceremonial, has generated is remarkable. This interest is reflective of a nation that since gaining independence from the United Kingdom (UK) in 1947 has been steeped deeply in democratic traditions, and one that is keenly aware of the fallacy of viewing the President as a “rubber stamp”. The founding fathers of independent India assured when they framed a visionary Constitution that drew from the strengths and weaknesses of existing canons across the world that even if real power remained firmly and appropriately in the hands of representatives elected directly by the people of the country, the President was an important cog in India’s Constitution architecture.  

Presidential elections in India have always drawn interest, but this became especially true since the emergence of a competitive party system with different parties being in power at the centre and in the states. The office of the President has largely been a position of influence rather than power. India’s President does not exercise executive powers, but yet all executive decisions are carried out in his or her name. The President is required by the Constitution to act on the advice of the council of ministers led by the Prime Minister, but he has simultaneously been empowered to ask the government to reconsider actions and legislation, and to offer it advice. Furthermore, among the most crucial roles that the President is mandated by the Constitution to carry out is when no political party is able to get a parliamentary majority in a national election, or when which party has a majority remains unclear.

As Dr. Sandeep Shastri, the Vice-Chancellor of Jagran Lakecity University, pointed out in an article in India Today, R. Venkataraman, a former President of India, aptly defined the office as an “Emergency lamp” that “lights up” during such times of political uncertainty. Several former Presidents, including Venkataraman himself, Shankar Dayal Sharma, and K.R. Narayanan, have all handled such politically fraught situations, and each of them had dealt with it differently. This has not only been the focus of much political discussion and debate, but has also underlined the important impact that the interpretation by individual Presidents of the provisions of the Constitution and the situation prevailing on the ground could have on the country’s polity. With General Elections due in 2024, it is little wonder that both the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led coalition the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), and the fractured political Opposition consisting of several ideologically disparate political parties, have jerked into action in preparation for the 18 July polls.

The President of India is elected by members of an Electoral College comprising elected representatives of both Houses of its Parliament and elected members of the Legislative Assemblies of all Indian states and territories. Members who have been nominated to Parliament or the Legislative Assemblies of the states are not part of the Electoral College. The value of the votes of Members of Parliament (MPs) and Members of Legislative Assemblies (MLAs) varies based on the population of the states that they come from. Polling is held in the Parliament House in New Delhi and on the premises of the State Legislative Assemblies by secret ballot. A single transferable vote is used as per the system of proportional representation. In a measure introduced to weed out the several non-serious candidates who had put themselves in the fray in some of the early Presidential elections taking advantage of the highly generous eligibility criteria that permitted virtually any Indian citizen above the age of 35 to become a candidate, it had a few decades ago been made mandatory for at least 50 MPs to propose a candidate and another 50 to second him or her.

The total number of votes at the Electoral College is 1,086,431, and the results are decided by simple majority. The BJP and its alliance partners are in a strong position and at present are just a little short of the halfway mark, having about 48% of the votes. In terms of number of votes, the BJP and its allies are 13,000 votes short of the majority mark. The BJP, therefore, does need the support of other regional or national parties to achieve the majority that it requires for its candidate. Meanwhile, even if the Opposition parties can theoretically spin together a majority, they are highly disunited and have displayed little interest or ability to forge common positions and take joint action even on issues they have deemed to be of great importance to them. The difficulty of their task is also compounded by the fact that the highest cumulative number of votes held by an Opposition block or party is the mere 23% that the Congress party-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) has.

The hectic consultations that were launched this week by both the BJP and the Opposition are a reflection of the importance that the office of President holds for each of the two. The general impression is that the BJP is unlikely to re-nominate incumbent Ram Nath Kovind. India’s first President, Dr. Rajendra Prasad, was the only one to serve two full terms. The BJP has, therefore, authorized its party President J.P. Nadda and Defense Minister Rajnath Singh to hold consultations with constituents of the NDA and the UPA, as well as other political parties. Their effort to generate consensus for the BJP’s candidate is hardly likely to succeed, so their main task would likely be to obtain support for the candidate from as many Opposition parties as is possible and thereby ensure a whopping victory.

The element of surprise has been an essential component of the BJP’s strategy over its last 8 years in power. The party has so far not given any indication of who its candidate will be, and going by past experience this will not be known till such time as the party decides it is ready to go public with it. The candidate eventually put forward will, in all likelihood, take everybody by surprise. Be that as it may, the present names doing the rounds in the Indian media are incumbent Vice President Venkaiah Naidu, a life-long BJP leader and former party President; the Governor of Kerala, Mohammad Arif Khan; the female tribal leader from Odisha, Draupadi Murmu, who served as the first governor of Jharkhand from 2015; the governor of Telangana, Tamilisai Soundararajan, a former President of the Tamil Nadu unit of BJP; and Thawar Chand Gehlot, the present governor of Karnataka. A prominent Dalit leader, Gehlot served in the BJP in various capacities, including as a member of the BJP’s Parliamentary Board and the Central Election Committee. He was also minister of Social Justice and Empowerment in the first term of the Modi government. Along with these, the names of Sumitra Mahajan, the former Speaker of the lower house of India’s Parliament, the Lok Sabha, and Jual Oram, another tribal leader from Odisha, are also doing the rounds.

The Opposition, desperate to make the contest tight by uniting all non-BJP parties, called a meeting of all parties in New Delhi on 15 June to shortlist a common candidate. The uphill task that confronts the Opposition became evident when several of the important invitees, including the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS), the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and Odisha's ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD), did not bother to turn up. In another major blow, Sharad Pawar, the 81-year-old Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader and former Union Minister who is one of India's most senior and crafty politicians, declined requests by several important Opposition parties to be their common candidate. He said at a meeting of his party on the eve of the mega Opposition meeting in Delhi that “I am not in the race, I will not be opposition candidate for the President’s post”. He was, nevertheless, again requested on 15 June in Delhi. Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) leader T. R. Baalu informed media persons that “Leaders of all parties requested Sharad Pawar to contest the President’s election and be the joint candidate, but he declined the offer”. Pawar himself tweeted, “I sincerely appreciate the leaders of Opposition parties for suggesting my name as a candidate for the election of the President of India, at the meeting held in Delhi. However I like to state that I have humbly declined the proposal of my candidature”.

A NCP leader who is a minister in the Maharashtra government sought to explain Pawar’s decision by saying that “I don’t think he is keen on contesting polls. Saheb (Pawar) is a people’s man who loves meeting people. He will not restrict himself to the Rashtrapati Bhavan (Presidential Residence)”. Being the experienced and shrewd politician that he is, it is likely that Pawar’s reluctance is primarily a result of his lack of confidence in the Opposition’s ability to muster the numbers needed to push its candidate to victory.

There were, however, some positives that emerged for the Opposition from the Delhi meeting. Mamata Banerjee, the chief of the All India Trinamool Congress (TMC) and the Chief Minister of West Bengal, who had convened the meeting, averred at a press conference that “We've decided we will choose only one consensus candidate. Everybody will give this candidate our support. We will consult others. This is a good beginning”. Communist Party of India (CPI) leader Binoy Viswam reiterated that “there was consensus in the meeting that there should be only one candidate who is acceptable to all”.

Two names, those of former Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah and retired diplomat, former West Bengal Governor and Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson, Gopalkrishna Gandhi, were shortlisted for consideration. As per a report in The Times of India, Abdullah’s name was suggested by none other than Sharad Pawar, who argued that it would be a bold and significant move. The next Opposition meeting scheduled to be held next week is likely to carry the discussions further.

The efforts of the Opposition, even if they appear to be more sincere and better coordinated this time around, are likely to yield only symbolic gains if recent Indian media reports are to be believed. A report in The Wire suggested that just like in the 15th Presidential Elections in 2017, Opposition parties such as the BJD and the YSR Congress Party led by Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Jagan Mohan Reddy, among others, are most likely to support the BJP candidate as against the common Opposition candidate. The BJD has about 31,000 votes in the Electoral College and the YSR Congress about 43,000. The support of just these two parties would be much more than enough for the BJP’s candidate to wipe off the shortfall of 13,000 votes and secure a comfortable victory.

Even if the results of the 18 July elections are already virtually pre-decided and the battle is in all likelihood going to be largely symbolic, the way in which the BJP and its allies on one hand and the Opposition parties on the other have both plunged themselves into the contest is a true reflection of how deep democracy runs through the veins of India’s political system, and indeed its people.