Five years ago, one ‘almost’ broke the story of India’s next president. Amid feverish speculation, a source sent an SMS: “Congratulations! India is getting its first woman president and it is from your home state!”. My instinctive reaction was to think of Nirmala Deshpande, a longstanding Gandhian and powerful votary of Indo-Pak peace. We even flashed her name as a likely choice. To be honest, Pratibha Patil, then Rajasthan governor, was one of the last names on our list of possible Maharashtrian women who would occupy Rashtrapati Bhavan. As it turned out, Patil’s near-anonymity and relative low profile proved to be her biggest asset.
In the last five years, Patil has lived up to her reputation of being the silent, almost nondescript president. Over this period, one can’t recall a single major speech given or landmark initiative undertaken by Rashtrapati Bhavan. She may be India’s first woman president, but there hasn’t been any stirring of woman power or a concerted effort to use the presidential office to reach out to millions of women in the country at a time when the sex ratio has fallen to a new low. To her credit, Patil hasn’t committed any major constitutional blunder either. But as the recent controversies over her post-retirement home in Pune and the Rs. 205 crore spent on her foreign trips suggest, the line between constitutionality and propriety is a thin one. Patil may not have violated the Constitution, but her extravagance on personal and family comfort does leave a bitter aftertaste.
Which brings us to the central question as the nation looks for Patil’s successor: who is an ideal president? The Constitution under Article 358 is typically prosaic: the individual must be a citizen of India, above the age of 35, eligible to contest a Lok Sabha election and must not hold an office of profit in a government body. What the Constitution doesn’t prescribe is that a presidential appointment be determined by political subservience which, unfortunately, has become more the norm than an exception.
In a sense, 1969 was the turning point. India’s first three presidents were chosen principally on their distinguished track record in public service and little else. Rajendra Prasad, S Radhakrishnan and Zakir Hussain were as fine a trinity of presidents one might have hoped for, the first a freedom fighter, the other two men of great learning. While VV Giri was a well regarded labour leader, the manner of his appointment after the acrimonious 1969 split in the Congress ensured that the presidential race was infused with a heavy dose of politics. While the country had some very fine textbook presidents post-69 – none better than the country’s first Dalit president KR Narayanan – we also had rubber stamp presidents like Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed whose tame acceptance of the Emergency proclamation of 1975 must be considered as the day Rashtrapati Bhavan was defiled.
A presidential appointment, thus, became more about finding an individual who would do the bidding for the government of the day. Sycophantic politicians were invariably preferred to scholar statesmen, with Giani Zail Singh after being made president in 1982 by the Indira government being quoted as having famously remarked, “If my leader had said I should pick up a broom and be a sweeper, I would have done that. She chose me to be president!.”
The other dominant trait in choosing presidents has been the token symbolism attached to the post. Gianiji was made president to reach out to a Sikh community in foment. Narayanan was a man of learning, but his choice was influenced by the fact that the United Front government was looking for a Dalit ‘face’ in Rashtrapati Bhavan. Even missile man APJ Abdul Kalam was chosen by the BJP-led government less because of his scientific achievements and more because he gave the BJP an opportunity to shed its anti-Muslim image. As for Patil, clearly, the Congress-led government was trying to play the first woman president card to outsmart its opponents.
Since 1969, all of India’s presidents, with the exception of Kalam have been practising politicians. Kalam’s success re-ignited the debate over whether an apolitical person can make a better president than someone whose political leanings are obvious. Kalam certainly did not bring with him the ideological baggage or individual loyalties that had burdened several of his predecessors. Moreover, his child-like enthusiasm and austere lifestyle made him enormously attractive to a generation which had grown increasingly cynical of the VIP culture that is invariably associated with influential politicians.
One Kalam certainly doesn’t make a presidential summer, and there is no guarantee that every ‘apolitical’ individual will make a better president. But, clearly Kalam’s popularity among the aam aadmi should have been a signal for the political class that the country was looking for a president of stature whose track record of public service should be such that he or she is able to rise above the ordinariness of being a mere figurehead.
Which is why this July’s presidential election will provide another opportunity for the country’s politicians to redefine the role and character of the presidency. Whoever is chosen for the post, the qualification should not revolve around caste or community or political biases. Choose a person who will elevate the post through a lifetime of individual achievement and public service. Not someone who owes their status solely to the benevolence of a political party and its leadership or is wrapped up in the trappings of power and sees Rashtrapati Bhavan as little more than a luxurious guest house.
The views expressed by the author are personal