The election to the office of President of India is only three months away and a new president will assume office by the end of July. The incumbent, President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, is hugely popular with the people—arguably the first people’s president. Yet, he is not the favourite of many parties, who will elect the next president.
President Kalam’s popularity, coupled with his minority status, may compel many parties to rally behind him. Looking at the discomfiture of the Congress leadership and the Left parties with President Kalam, he is, however, unlikely to become a consensus choice. The betting is they will have to replace him with another minority candidate, preferably a Muslim. With no such candidate on offer, here is one intriguing possibility: Sonia Gandhi may want to make Manmohan Singh the next president. How effective has Singh been as the Prime Minister? If he were to be elected as the President of India, what sort of a president would he be?
Singh’s greatest qualities, which made him a favourite of Gandhi, are his integrity and personal loyalty. Even when Rahul Gandhi recently attacked the late Narasimha Rao—who is despised by the Gandhi family—Singh had the courage and decency to praise the man whom he served with distinction.
Singh is a thinking Prime Minister, a person whose personal integrity is unflinching and unquestioned. Initially, he suited every political party in the ruling coalition because of his lack of political authority—and ambition—and genial manners.
One of Singh’s greatest handicaps is his poor, public communication skills. He is not an effective public speaker and doesn’t inspire confidence. This, in turn, makes him appear somewhat ineffective, even when he is totally in grasp of the situation.
Despite such limitations, middle classes have adored Singh for his sagacity, contributions and ushering in economic reforms as the finance minister in Rao’s cabinet, which put the nation on a sustained growth trajectory.
In comparison, his tenure as the Prime Minister is disappointing. Middle classes—for whom he became a venerable figure—are also disappointed by the politically-expedient acts of his government—like the imposition of President’s rule in Bihar, and insistence of quotas for Other Backward Classes and Muslims.
In Rao’s cabinet, Singh enjoyed a free hand as the finance minister. As Prime Minister, he is constantly under pressure from many powerful quarters, rendering him a weak Prime Minister. You can have a weak chief minister or a cabinet minister, but India can’t afford to have a politically-weak Prime Minister.
In his nearly three years in the office, Singh has steered the government effectively only in the first year. Of late, the Prime Minister is being rarely seen or heard even as electoral defeats pile up for the ruling party. It is apparent that a badly mauled Congress leadership has slowly but surely taken over the governance in its hands and governance is increasingly being guided by electoral considerations.
So, would Singh as the new president be a ‘win-win’ situation for both him and the Congress president? It will suit the Nehru-Gandhi family very well. Who else can the family trust more than Singh—to install somebody from the family, be it Sonia or Rahul Gandhi—as prime minister if that is what they end up wanting?
Kalam is a people’s President. Manmohan will be a people’s and politician’s President. A top-ranking non-Congress leader—who was also instrumental in making Abdul Kalam the President of India—once told me that the Prime Minister is more courteous, receptive and responsive than President Kalam in listening to their grievances and views. While some rivals may oppose him for political reasons, even they will testify that Singh will make an honest and good president.
The country has had many ‘rubber stamp’ presidents in the past and perhaps does not mind one more, especially a thinking, intelligent and honest one. What India can’t afford these days is a politically disconnected, rubber stamp prime minister.
G.V.L. Narasimha Rao is a political analyst and managing director of Development & Research Services, a research and consulting firm. Your comments on this Monday column, which will alternate between the intersection of business and politics, and pure politics, are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.