Keep those rosgullas ready. By day’s end, Pranab Mukherjee will almost certainly have been elected President, given the arithmetic of the electoral college. When the votes are counted, the UPA candidate will have romped home comfortably, belying initial expectations that it would be a close race. But with even Trinamool Congress Mamata Banerjee, who initially set out to spike Mukherjee’s candidacy, eventually acknowledging the futility of her campaign and falling in line, the official announcement of the result has become something of a formality.
Purno A Sangma, the candidate of sections of the Opposition, has been putting on a brave front, by talking up the political significance of the election and comparing it to the 1969 election, when the official Congress party candidate was defeated by Indira Gandhi’s choice. The historical parallels don’t always run smooth, and in any case they were vastly overstated.
So much so that even Sangma acknowledges that the numbers are weighted against him. He has said at other times that he is counting on a “miracle” to propel him ahead of Mukherjee, and had appealed to MPs and MLAs from the ruling coalition to vote according to their “conscience”. It’s very likely that Sangma will receive validation today that miracles are in a bear market – and “conscience” too may be in short supply in the constituency that he is addressing.
Yet, there’s one lingering frisson of excitement about the official tally of the presidential election. It relates to the extent to which the secret ballot was used by MPs and MLAs to cast a dissenting vote by cross-voting for the ‘other’ candidate. Conscience may have little to do with it: the urge to break rank over a matter of personal or political pique – and to poke their own leaders in the eye – will likely prove a more compelling reason if there is any cross-voting.
As the voting incident involving Mulayam Singh Yadav showed, sheer ineptness could also tweak the numbers on the margins. It is beyond comprehension that a man who has been in politics for so long, who has served as Chief Minister of India’s biggest State on more than one occasion, who has been in Parliament for years, and who even aspires to be Prime Minister some day, could have got it so wrong – and voted for Sangma by mistake. His subsequent effort to rectify his error has come to nought: his vote has been invalidated after objections from the Opposition parties.
It isn’t hard to imagine that there will be equally muddled responses from other MPs and MLAs in a way that upsets the electoral calculations of either political formation.
The presidential election, at its core, isn’t such a big deal. There have, of course, been flagrant abuses of the office of the President by the government of the day – as, for instance, when Indira Gandhi’s rubber-stamp President signed the Emergency proclamation without any demur. And President Zail Singh learnt to his mortification that even his telephone lines were tapped by the Rajiv Gandhi government: Zail Singh used to take visitors with whom he used to discuss sensitive matters to the stately Mughal Gandens, because he suspected (rightly) that the Rashtrapati Bhavan was bugged.
But other than that, recent Presidential tenures have largely skirted major political controversies. In fact, during the late 1980s and for a period during the 1990s, when the Indian electorate repeatedly threw up hung Parliaments, both R Venkataraman and KR Narayanan distinguished themselves by strictly abiding by the Constitution in inviting the single largest party or political formation to form the government. And since the breezy readiness with which the Central government invokes Article 356 of the Constitution to dismiss State governments and place them under President’s Rule has diminished over time, one source of potential abuse of Presidential power has been whittled down.
Yet, the President is in one sense the last line of defence in upholding the Constitutional framework. And although there is much that is wrong with our current Constitutional arrangement, till such time as we draw up a better one, it’s the only one we have, and for that reason must be defended.
On that count, for all of Mukherjee’s avowed abidance by constitutional principles, his record during the Emergency was far from distinguished. And on occasions, he has proven himself incapable of rising above partisan interests when larger national interests were at stake. In recent months and years, he has also come in for much justifiable criticism for the manner in which he ran the Indian economy to the ground (even if it wasn’t all his fault).
As President, after he takes his oath of office on Wednesday, Pranab Mukherjee will be on stern test to see that he has in fact stopped being a Congressman in the conduct of his official duties. His long years as Mr Fix-It for the Congress party may have helped him get to the highest office in the land. In the next few years, he will repeatedly be called upon to put country before the Congress. It is a test he has failed in the past. We can ill-afford to have him fail again on that count.