The presidential polls and Naidu’s non-elevation

He ran the Rajya Sabha reasonably well. He appeared independent but not menacingly so, yet, he did not find favour with the government run by his erstwhile party.

Published: 03rd August 2022 12:27 AM  |   Last Updated: 03rd August 2022 12:27 AM   |  A+A-

We have a new president for our republic, and we will soon have a new vice-president. The Opposition has been unremarkable in its selection of candidates for the two top constitutional posts. It is true that they do not possess the required numbers; it was obvious that they were staring at defeat, but the game is not always about numbers. It is more about throwing up choices that could offer a shrewd moral contrast to the preferences of the ruling establishment. In this respect, the fatigue of the Opposition has been all too apparent. We have mostly witnessed staid meetings in sombre bungalows.

By contrast, the ruling coalition had numbers, their victory was somewhat foregone, but still, they strategised with some purpose and plan. They designed not only a victory but also a victorious narrative, especially with their nomination for president—a woman with tribal origins. It is their narrative, not numbers, that has wrecked the Opposition further. So much so that the Opposition’s presidential candidate, Yashwant Sinha, neither got to campaign in his home state, Jharkhand, nor his former party’s home state, West Bengal. There could be no greater irony.

Similarly, there is limited enthusiasm for the vice-presidential candidacy of Margaret Alva. When Mamata Banerjee said that her party would abstain from voting since it was not ‘consulted’, Alva said that this was not a time for ‘whataboutery, egos or anger’. That’s a correct line, but a chide does not help the situation. Unlike the president, who has a bigger electoral college, the vice-president is elected only by members of both houses of Parliament, and Banerjee’s party offers solid numbers—23 in the Lok Sabha and 13 in the Rajya Sabha. If the Trinamool Congress sits out, the contest becomes even more lopsided.
The growing perception is that the Opposition does not know how to coordinate and does not really have anything or anybody to coordinate for—a personality, a purpose or a uniting principle. There are only trite ambitions of power visible, and this need not have been the case.

Anyway, a week from now, Vice-President Venkaiah Naidu will be saying his goodbyes, and Jagdeep Dhankhar will be getting ready to move in. It is surprising that Naidu was not given an elevation. There is nothing that he did in the last five years that disqualified him for the top constitutional job. He ran the Rajya Sabha reasonably well. He wrote his Op-Eds and tried to contribute to the discourse of the day. He appeared independent but not menacingly so, yet, he did not find favour with the government run by his erstwhile party and friends. When it became certain he’d depart, Congress leader Jairam Ramesh in fact, complimented Naidu by saying a ‘good man exits’ and added that ‘he will be a very tough act to follow’.

Interestingly, of the 13 vice-presidents we have had, six of them were elevated as presidents when they completed their term, and there was only one vice-president, the first one, who served two terms in his role—S Radhakrishnan. This was because Rajendra Prasad, the first president, refused to leave the chair. At one point, Prasad did not want to finish his first term, but when it was actually drawing to a close, he found backers in the Congress party, independent of Jawaharlal Nehru. As a result, a sulking Radhakrishnan reluctantly continued to run the Rajya Sabha for five more years. Rajendra Prasad was president for the longest period, for 12 years, and this included an unelected term of two years between 1950 and 1952. For those two years, India did not have a vice-president and did not have a Rajya Sabha.

The first vice-president who was not elevated to the president was Gopal Swarup Pathak when his term ended in 1974. Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed was brought in. Pathak was a judge in pre-Independence India and later a law minister but was not affiliated with any political party. He was appointed when Indira Gandhi was prime minister, but she did not prefer him as president in 1974. He was replaced by B D Jatti. Venkaiah Naidu, strangely, suffers the fate of G S Pathak because the government that sponsored his candidature is still in power but has not preferred his elevation.

When other vice-presidents completed their terms, alternate party governments had come to power, and prime ministers had changed. When Jatti completed his term in 1979, Janata Party was in power with Morarji Desai at the helm. When Mohammad Hidayatullah finished his term in 1984, Indira Gandhi was prime minister, and Zail Singh was already in office. We often forget that Hidayatullah was also Chief Justice of India, and he also officiated briefly as president, and so did Jatti. When Krishna Kant, picked by the I K Gujral government, completed his term, Vajpayee was prime minister, and he preferred Abdul Kalam. Shekhawat, who was Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s choice, similarly had Manmohan Singh as prime minister and Congress in power when he completed his term. Hamid Ansari, who was in the news lately, was a Congress nominee, but when he completed his term, Narendra Modi was in power, and Naidu replaced him.

Now that we are in the presidential poll season, there has been an interesting suggestion doing the rounds in some private circles in Karnataka, a state that was the ground zero of the Panchayat Raj experiment in the 1980s. It is being suggested that the electoral college to pick the president of India should include members of panchayats, which is the basic unit of our governance. At present, only legislators in state assemblies and parliamentarians elect the president. If logistics would make it difficult right away to include members from all three tiers of the Panchayat system, it could be initially restricted to members of 630 zilla panchayats across the nation.

That would certainly make it more inclusive, more democratic, more celebratory, less predictable and open to the real possibility of more independent candidates contesting—a reform to look forward to.

Sugata Srinivasaraju
Senior journalist and author


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  • Sankaramani

    Why not President be elected by people directly. This will be milte inclusive.
    1 month ago reply
  • Shreekanth Prabhu

    Journalists and politicians are in their own world. They are disconnected from common people as well as ground reality.
    1 month ago reply
  • Shreekanth Prabhu

    Chide is a verb. Improper use of English I think. Would love to be corrected if I am wrong.
    1 month ago reply
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