On 17 July, the election to the office of the president of India shall be held. A total of 4,896 representatives—the elected members of parliament and legislative assemblies in India—will elect the person who, for the next five years, shall be under an oath to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution and the law.” On 20 July, we citizens will learn the name of the person who will be charged with this task. But what we will not know is the why: on what basis did the electors choose one candidate over the other?
To answer that question, it would be relevant to revisit key aspects of Indian presidential history, and to understand why India was constituted as a republic with the post of a president. Post-Independence, the Constituent Assembly of India had the onerous task of drafting a democratic constitution for the nation. One of the key questions before the assembly was whether India should continue to be a British Dominion—a sovereign nation that continues to be a part of the British Commonwealth with the monarch as its head of state. On 13 December 1946, Jawaharlal Nehru tabled a resolution on the objectives of the assembly. In the ensuing debates on the resolution, when this question of whether India should continue as a British Dominion arose, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, who went on to become the first vice president of India, said:
We are electing to go out of the British Commonwealth. May I say why? So far as India is concerned, it is not a mere Dominion like Australia, like New Zealand or Canada or South Africa. These latter are bound to Great Britain by ties of race, religion and culture. India has a vast population, immense natural resources, a great cultural heritage and has had an independent career for a very long time, and it is inconceivable that India can be a Dominion like the other Dominions.
The Dominion of India wanted to get rid of the last shackles of British imperialism. By constituting India into a sovereign republic with a president as its own elected head of state, the Constituent Assembly removed India’s ties to the British monarchy.
The president of India is the titular head of the union executive and the Indian parliament. Although all laws and treaties are made and enforced in the name of the president, she has very little to do with the day-to-day administration of the country and acts entirely in accordance with the aid and advice of the prime minister and the council of ministers. However, the Constituent Assembly appears to have taken the need for a president as given—the records of the assembly’s debates reveal little discussion on the necessity of the post of the president.
On 10 December 1948, KT Shah, an ardent socialist and member of the assembly, moved an amendment motion seeking to replace what subsequently became Article 52 of the present constitution—in the draft constitution, it was Article 41—which reads, “There shall be a President of India.” His amendment sought to replace it with “The Chief Executive and Head of the State in the Union of India shall be called the President of India.” In his response to the amendment motion, BR Ambedkar stated that the proposed amendment would “introduce the American presidential form of executive and not the Parliamentary form of executive which is contained in this Draft Constitution.” The motion was defeated but Shah remained undeterred.
At the assembly’s next meeting, on 13 December, Shah moved an amendment to the manner of election of the president, seeking a direct election of the president to ensure that the president would not be a “party man.” According to Shah, a direct election would ensure that the president would not be a “creature of party majorities in the Centre or the local legislatures but a real representative of the people, and one elected to function as the head of the State and as its representative.” Against this, Kengal Hanumanthaiya, who would become the chief minister of Karnataka in 1952, argued that rather than ensuring the election of a “non-party man,” direct elections would have the opposite effect. The logistical difficulty involved in campaigning throughout the country, Hanumanthaiya said, would ensure that only those with backing from political parties could contest for the election. This amendment, too, was defeated.
However, this sort of distrust towards political parties was expressed repeatedly by many legislators throughout the Constituent Assembly’s debates. That the Constituent Assembly wished for the president to be a person who would act in an unbiased manner, unbound by any loyalty save that to the Constitution of India, is evident from the views expressed by stalwarts such as Shah and Hanumanthaiya. Yet, India has had very few non-party presidents. Among the 13 Indian presidents till date, APJ Abdul Kalam is the only one to have never held a party post. Shah’s worst fears likely came true in 1975, the president Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed appeared to be a party man and did nothing to prevent Indira Gandhi’s declaration of emergency.
Ten years after the emergency period, in 1987, the ninth presidential election proved to be unique on account of a rather extraordinary request made by some of the contestants. R Venkataraman, VR Krishna Iyer and Mithilesh Kumar Sinha were the candidates contesting in the election. Venkataraman, the sitting vice president at the time and a former member of parliament was the official Congress nominee and Krishna Iyer, who had been an eminent judge of the Supreme Court, was the official opposition candidate. A relatively little known fact is that Sinha, the third candidate, requested the Election Commission to enable him to broadcast his views over All India Radio and Doordarshan. Krishna Iyer made the same request, for all three candidates to be able to do so, to the minister of state for information and broadcasting.
Under the Representation of People’s Act, broadcasting or telecasting facilities are afforded only to recognised political parties during general elections to the Lok Sabha and the state assemblies. However, the central government refused to accommodate the requests. Such a request has not been made again till date.
The heart of a democracy lies in the opportunity that it presents for people to make a choice. This choice is not arbitrarily made: the people, it is assumed, make an informed choice of what is best for them. Whether an elector wants to be an informed elector, however, is a choice that people make as well. The state influences that choice by making conditions as conducive as possible for citizens to become informed electors. Every democratic republic allows for this through the process of election campaigning. Reading the manifesto, learning about the aspiring representative’s background, understanding what the aspirant believes in, ascertaining whether the aspirant would make a good representative—all of these tasks, which result in an informed elector, are made easier by allowing candidates to campaign. Rather than electors going out in search of the this information, the state allows candidates to provide the necessary information to electors. This freedom is subject to restrictions on the campaigners, such as on the use of coercive measures, to ensure an atmosphere that is conducive to making informed choices.
With presidential elections, we must ask the same question: are our elected representatives making an informed choice? Are they reading a manifesto, finding out the aspiring representative’s background, understanding what the aspirant believes in and figuring out whether the aspirant would make a good president? This is unlikely, given that only those candidates supported by parties with a majority in the electoral college—the elected MPs and MLAs who elect a president—have won the presidential elections till date.
One among the many factors behind this is that the manner in which presidential elections are conducted does not facilitate informed choice-making. The structure of the election makes campaigning a near impossible task. The Presidential and Vice Presidential Elections Act provides for a minimum of 15 days between the last date of withdrawal of candidature and the elections—the traditional campaigning period in elections—and conventionally, the Election Commission has sanctioned exactly as many days. With 4,896 electors are spread across the country, 15 days are insufficient to cover all the states of India and their MPs and MLAs. Traditionally, political parties circumvent the problem of insufficient time in state and general elections by releasing manifestos well in advance, but unfortunately, no presidential candidate has released a manifesto till date.
An alternative is to allow the electors, and the people of India, to listen to what the aspiring candidates have to say through a presidential debate. Perhaps the candidates would speak of what democracy means to them, the different programs that they would initiate or posit reasons as to why their opponent should not be president. A debate would allow electors to ask questions and seek clarifications from the candidates as well—it would provide the electors with more information to make their choice. Party loyalty and blind belief in the party’s candidate may still influence a majority of the electors, but allowing campaigning would be another step in making our country a truly democratic republic. The voting booth, after all, is the place where an elector is truly free.
The requests by Mithilesh Kumar Sinha and VR Krishna Iyer in the ninth presidential election, if granted, had the potential to allow “non-party men” to have a fair chance at being the Indian president. The ruling government at the time denied a perfectly reasonable request, and things haven’t changed in the present presidential election. The candidates Ram Nath Kovind and Meira Kumar have travelled across the country to campaign. However, both have met only the electors of those parties that have already pledged support to them. Latest news reports note that today, Meira Kumar will be presenting her opinions and ideas in an interactive session to the electors of the 18 parties that are not a part of the National Democratic Alliance, but have already expressed support to her. Ram Nath Kovind wrapped up his campaign by meeting BJP MPs and MLAs from Gujarat in Gandhinagar. The aim of a campaign—to convince those electors who wouldn’t otherwise vote for a candidate—appears to have been lost in this election. The need of the hour is to allow electors to make an informed choice free of party pressure and other considerations, and it is imperative that the Election Commission take steps towards ensuring the same. Perhaps then, one can hope for persons with the ability to rise above political affiliations to become the first citizen of our country.
Venkataraman Ganesh is a final year student pursuing Development Studies at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at IIT Madras.