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Indian ironies reign supreme. In a political arena that has gone ‘presidential’ in all but formal structure, given how often a vote for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is a thumbs-up for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India is set to elect its next President. On Tuesday, both sides of the contest announced their candidates. The ruling BJP has fielded Droupadi Murmu, 64, former governor of Jharkhand, while the opposition converged on Yashwant Sinha, 84, who was once finance minister, after at least three politicians turned down its offer. Due on 18 July, the election of a citizen to replace Ram Nath Kovind in the Rashtrapati Bhavan may seem like a sideshow, even a shoo-in. After all, the job is largely ceremonial, with its ability to keep us on the edge of our seats seen as going no further than the event of a hazily hung Lok Sabha, and the BJP has sufficient support to make this a no-contest. Such is the ruling party’s dominance right now. Moreover, identity counts for plenty in today’s politics, as few other parties can better attest, and by putting up a Tribal woman against someone drawn from a social bracket of privilege, the BJP might have gained an extra edge.

Yet, none of the above should make us swipe this poll off our news feed. The President’s role is not as titular as popularly held. In the mid-1980s, Giani Zail Singh showed as much by denying his assent to an Act of Parliament that would have let the government steam open letters and peer into our mail. And in 1969, a ‘done deal’ of the Congress was undone by inner-party intrigue that saw an independent, V.V. Giri, win instead. That stunner of an outcome shook up the calculus of party-tally forecasts, acquainted India with ‘cross-voting’ via secret ballots and aroused wonder over the complexity of our polling formula. The winner is whoever gets the most votes awarded by an ‘electoral college’ of elected lawmakers at the central and state levels. Since electors represent citizens here, the vote ‘value’ assigned to electors can vary. A legislator, for example, is expected to vote on behalf of the average number of people each elected member of that state’s assembly represents. Divided by 1,000 to scale it down and added up across states, this makes up roughly half the total value, with an equivalent sum split evenly among elected members of the Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha. Hence, by design, 4,033 Indian legislators will together get a voice as valuable as all of our 776 parliamentarians (for a federal balance), with all of them speaking for India’s population.

Why did our Constitution bestow us with such a head-scratcher of an electoral formula? Arguably, the basic idea of it was drawn from the role itself, which was to ensure that constitutional values are upheld by those elected directly to power at the Centre. For this oversight device to hold legitimacy in a republic, the exercise of this authority must have popular backing, but for its insulation from populist impulses that may neglect the principles of democracy, the one entrusted with this task must be chosen by leaders who have both public support and rulebook awareness. All in all, it makes sense. But, given the intent, it can only be effective if electors go by the spirit of picking a president in secrecy. The very possibility of an upset, no matter how slim, may also explain the candidacy of faces who can attract electors from across the aisle. Thus, if Murmu holds appeal among Tribals, Sinha is ex-BJP. All considered, this poll is no trifle.

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