What’s on the cards for the Indian presidential election?

Jun 15, 2017
By Garga Chatterjee
BJP wants a president they can control
Rarely in the Indian Union has an incumbent government had such a skewed ethnic and geographical basis.
Let us be frank about what the ethnic basis of the BJP is. It is Hindi-speaking Hindus. Without that group, the party collapses.
When its non-Hindi state units import leaders from outside, they bring Hindi speakers. Even in non-Hindi states like West Bengal and Odisha, Hindi speakers are over-represented in the party apparatus.
This specific slant shows up in policy too and that has energised federalist forces in non-Hindi states. Now that the election of the president of the Indian Union is approaching, it is important to take stock of what might happen and also talk about what should happen.
The president of India represents where federalism in the Indian Union is conjoined. He can evoke emergency powers at the Union or at the State, though both cases have been curtailed quite a bit due to repeated earlier abuse of these powers handed down from the position of governor general or viceroy of British colonial times.
The Indian Union today
Thus, when a president is chosen by a party whose strength lies in its sheer dominance in the Hindi belt, and other ethno-linguistic nationalities have no voice, this is akin to what the Union government is now today, minus, of course, the unholy influence of Gujarati capital.
In a multi-linguistic union like the Indian Union, this kind of Pakistan-like political, legislative, and administrative dominance of a linguistic group is unhealthy and goes against the spirit of unity that underlies the Indian Union.
However, the ruling BJP has shown no sign of being inclusive enough to own up to the diverse reality of the Indian Union — neither in its economic policy nor political machinations. The presidential elections are no exception.
Age-old Delhi politics
The fact that the name of the RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat was even floated in a semi-serious way shows that BJP does not want any cooperation with the incumbent political stake-holders of various non-BJP states and opposition parties on the question of presidential election.
The possibility of an uncontested, unanimous president looks bleak. But that is to be expected from a government that bypasses Rajya Sabha, where the opposition is in a majority, by making all contentious bills as money bills, and even bypasses the Lok Sabha where it rules not through laws, but ordinances which were not voted upon by people’s representatives.
The old hand of Delhi politics, incumbent President Pranab Mukherjee, might have fancied another term. This is how his recent moves have been analysed as. For example, he has tried to appear nice and cooperative to the BJP-led Union government by voicing support for simultaneous state assembly and union parliament elections — an idea that is opposed by wide sections of the opposition but has been a favourite BJP theme, or by accepting the slew of Hindi imposition measures recommended by the parliamentary committee on official languages.
What BJP wants
He even signed all the ordinances that BJP wanted. But these gestures by Pranab Mukherjee do not seem to have worked. BJP wants a president they can order things to do rather than present things to be done.
Pranab Mukherjee looks to be on his way out unless Mamata Banerjee can convince all the opposition about his candidature, although incumbent presidents have typically avoided a contested candidature. If the BJP candidate wins, one direct fall out will be the increase in the number of ordinances. Bypassing the people’s representatives in the parliament will become even more routine than it already is.
Whoever BJP chooses as its candidate, it looks like there are initiatives among opposition parties for a united opposition candidate. As things stand, in the presidential Electoral College, the number of votes of the BJP-led NDA is less than the majority.
The opposition huddle may not prevent BJP from one or two parties that are not in government to make up the necessary numbers. But this huddle will bring together forces of secularism and federalism. That exercise itself will be something healthy for the defence of democratic federalism in the Indian Union.
The huddle will be held at a stage when Congress is at its weakest. Thus, it is the pro-federalism parties like Trinamool and others who will make their mark in the opposition space since they are the real stumbling blocks for the BJP. Wherever BJP has to contend with the Congress, it generally wins.
When the BJP face pro-federalism state-based or linguistic ethnicity-based parties, BJP’s weakness is out in the open. The re-adjustment of weights in what constitutes the face of the opposition is long due. The coming presidential election also presents that opportunity.
Dhaka Tribune, June 15, 2017

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