New Delhi: As the process to elect India’s 12th President gathers momentum, it is becoming clear that smaller political parties with less than 6% individual share in the electoral college could hold the key to Rashtrapati Bhavan.
President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam is widely expected to vacate his official residence atop New Delhi’s Raisina Hill on 24 July after a single term. Nominations for his successor need to be filed by the middle of next month.
The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA), supported by the Left parties, leads the race as it commands more than 46% share of the electoral college, which comprises members of both Houses of Parliament and the legislative assemblies of the states.
The Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) holds just over 32% of the total votes. Individually, too, the Congress is ahead with close to 26%, while the BJP has less than 23%.
The UPA’s lead in the electoral college notwithstanding, the ruling coalition is still short of a majority.
That means that if the rest of the parties were to line up against the UPA candidate, he would stand little chance of becoming the next President.
Equally important, no party or alliance can afford to take its flock for granted. That is because the President is elected through a secret ballot and party whips are not issued. Hence, the scramble to garner additional support.
This makes the role of the unattached parties, such as the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Samajwadi Party (SP), both of which have just over 5.5% share each in the electoral college, quite critical.
Uttar Pradesh, where the Mayawati-led BSP ousted the SP in a decisive mandate earlier this month, has the largest share in the electoral college as it contributes 80 Lok Sabha seats and has the largest state assembly with 403 seats.
“Mayawati’s clout is much bigger than the numbers at her disposal in the electoral college,” said Mahesh Rangarajan, a political analyst. “Her party is a growing force, which will have ramifications beyond the UP polls,” he added, noting that the presidential poll was bound to be a trial of strength for the major parties, even as the temporary alliances forged ahead of the poll may not last.
While each legislator’s vote from UP is valued at 208, the value of a counterpart’s vote from Sikkim is just seven. The value of each legislator’s vote is determined by the population of the state divided by the number of legislators in the state assembly per 1,000. In all, there are 4,120 legislators in the country, with votes totalling 5,49,474.
The value of vote of each member of Parliament is calculated by dividing the total value of all legislators’ votes by the number of MPs. The total votes of the MPs come to 5,49,408, since there are 776 MPs, 543 in the Lok Sabha and 233 in the Rajya Sabha. Nominated members don’t have any voting rights. That makes for a total of 10,98,882 votes in the electoral college.
Barring the Left Front, which has come out openly in support of external affairs minister and senior Congress leader Pranab Mukherjee, no party has announced its candidate.
The Congress is yet to confirm whether it is fielding Mukherjee as its candidate; he himself has been coy saying it is up to the Congress leadership to decide his candidacy. Mukherjee who has aspired to be the Prime Minister may, however, be keen to ascend to the presidency, given his chances of becoming the Prime Minister are slim, said one person familiar with the matter.
Former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee on Tuesday favoured a consensus over the country’s next President. Vajpayee also disclosed that he had clearly told APJ Abdul Kalam that it will be difficult for him to get a second term when there was some opposition after his name initially cropped up and the President shared this assessment.
“Then I clearly told Kalam that there would be no second term and he agreed,” Vajpayee said at a book release function. Authorised by the NDA to choose its nominee for the top post, he said he would be holding talks with everyone to decide on Kalam’s successor.
Meanwhile, both the UPA and NDA continue lobbying for support, even as they wait for BSP chief Mayawati to clarify her stand on 25 May, as she has announced.
All political parties are anxious to install their nominee— the idea is clearly to have a potentially sympathetic person in Rashtrapati Bhavan when the next general election takes place in 2009.
“The reason is simply the discretion vested in the President by the Constitution,” said Subhash C. Kashyap, a constitution expert and a former secretary-general of the Lok Sabha. “The Constitution empowers the President to appoint the Prime Minister. The convention is that the President invites the leader of the majority party, but the Constitution does not spell out the process of choosing the candidate. So, the President’s discretion becomes all the more important in times of fractured mandates, which seem to have become the norm.”
Satyavrat Chaturvedi, a Congress spokesperson, was a bit more circumspect. “Though the President’s office is deemed to be above party politics, each party wants to ensure that the person occupying that post is not opposed to its own political ideology.”
The Left parties, while supporting Mukherjee, have made it clear that they would only back somebody with ample political experience and impeccable secular credentials. BJP vice-president Yashwant Sinha agreed that political experience was an asset for a presidential candidate.
“Especially in the era of coalition politics, the President needs to understand the intricacies of each political move of the government,” said Sinha. “As the constitutional head, the President doesn’t have to accept the advice of the government without question. For example, every request to impose President’s rule in a state needs careful consideration.”
Rangarajan agreed, saying, “There is a lot to be said for this argument. After all, the President is not the head of the University Grants Commission. While the current President doesn’t fit the bill, he did visit Gujarat after the post-Godhra riots in 2002. That’s exactly the role of the President. Much to the chagrin of the ruling party, he also returned the legislation seeking to change the scope of offices of profit.”
Constitution expert Kashyap, cautioned that the President did not only have to be fair, but also needed to be seen to be fair in his decision. “In that sense, it’s more desirable to have somebody who is not an active politician or somebody who is seen as a diehard party politician,” he said.
But analysts point out, right from the first President Rajendra Prasad, occupants of this largely ceremonial office have asserted themselves on occasions. Even a highly political President such as Giani Zail Singh returned the controversial Indian Post Office (Amendment) Bill, 1986. The Bill, which sought to give the government power to censor mails, was then withdrawn.