NEW DELHI: As speculation mounts about the likely candidates that will contest the highest office in the land, it is difficult to ignore a larger question – why can’t the country’s political class display that much-needed character of non-partisanship and settle on a consensus candidate?
The Presidency after all, is a constitutional position that is largely ceremonial; whatever discretionary power is invested in the office is directed at protecting and defending the Constitution.
The former President R Venkataraman, who faced the tricky legal question about who to invite to office following an election that threw up a fractured Lok Sabha, described the President as no more than an “emergency light”.
In other words, something that comes on in the event of a crisis and then goes off once that is settled.
Unfortunately, India has chosen a path where elections are the norm – a rare exception being that of Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy, who was elected unopposed.
This time around, the Centre has made the usual gesture, that was almost certainly half-hearted, in reaching out to the Opposition to discuss a consensus candidate.
As for the other side, a number of political parties have met at the initiative of the TMC chief Mamata Banerjee to find a consensus candidate for the Opposition.
Significantly, the Congress was not included in this exercise, a development that could result in something short of a true consensus.
As things stand, three of the names advanced by Banerjee and others have declined. Both Sharad Pawar and Farooq Abdullah have declared that while they were honoured to have been considered, they would rather not contest.
This reluctance, quite clearly, stems from their belief that they are not done with the rough and tumble of everyday politics as well as an unwillingness to trade real power for a cosy sinecure.
The third man, Gopalkrishna Gandhi, a ‘non-political’ candidate, on Monday declined the Opposition leaders’ request to contest the presidential election. The grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, he fought the vice-presidential poll against Venkaiah Naidu in 2017 and lost.
There will be clarity about the Opposition’s game plan in the next couple of days. As far as the Modi government and the BJP goes, it is not clear who will be selected. There are a number of names, including that of Arif Mohammed Khan, making the rounds.
But as we have seen before, and in varying circumstances, Prime Minister Modi has a record of making decisions that have caught almost everyone off guard. Ram Nath Kovind was on virtually nobody’s mind before he was declared Presidential candidate.
Clearly, this poll is not about the contest, which is going to be a clear victory for the candidate endorsed by the Centre. For the Opposition, it is an opportunity to find another platform to cooperate as the 2024 election looms over it.
For the ruling dispensation, it is a chance to use this for some political signalling. Whether this will relate to issues such as women’s empowerment, Dalit emancipation or minority support will depend on who is chosen.