Prime Minister Narendra Modi is the most domineering figure in the Central government currently. This is not a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, nor is it that of the near-extinct National Democratic Alliance (NDA). It has also become evident that the other members of the Union Cabinet do not have a voice of their own, and they speak not on behalf of the government but on behalf of Prime Minister Modi.
This is reflected in the statements of all the senior members of the Cabinet, including Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, Home Minister Amit Shah, and Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman. They are forever referring to the vision and wishes of “Modiji”. This was aptly termed as a ‘presidential’ style of governance by friend-turned-foe Arun Shourie and a political conservative in the Hindutva party, Swapan Dasgupta, right at the beginning of Modi’s term in 2014.
We have also seen how Modi talked directly with the secretaries in the government over the heads of the ministers. Given all this, the question is, does the shadowy, symbolic and titular head of the Indian state, the President of India, have any play place in the Modi scheme of things? The answer is sure to be a clear ‘no’. Today, the post of President stands more marginalised than ever.
Does the shadowy, symbolic and titular head of the Indian state, the President of India, have any play place in the Modi scheme of things?
The tradition of choosing a politically insignificant figure as President began much before Modi’s term. Everyone remembers Indira Gandhi’s choice of VV Giri, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed and Zail Singh.
Kovind played the ceremonial role assigned to him, and so will Murmu.
A strong Prime Minister always looks for a weak President, and Modi’s choices prove the point.
Kovind Played a Ceremonial Role, So Will Murmu
The tradition of choosing a politically insignificant figure as President began much before Modi’s term. Everyone remembers Indira Gandhi’s choice of VV Giri, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed and Zail Singh. Of course, Zail Singh tried to act tough against Rajiv Gandhi, and there is the interesting Indian Express episode of S Mulgaonkar writing the letter for Singh; there is also Shourie’s retelling of how he averted a constitutional disaster in his recent book. But the President after Singh, chosen by the Congress under Rajiv Gandhi and PV Narasimha Rao, were seasoned politicians, such as R Venkataraman and Shankar Dayal Sharma. KR Narayanan was perhaps the first politically marginal choice of the Congress and the United Front in 1997.
The BJP, under Atal Bihari Vajpayee, picked the non-political APJ Abdul Kalam for president in 2002 when its first choice, KP Alexander, was shot down by Congress under Sonia Gandhi. The next choice, Pratibha Patil, by the first UPA government in 2007, was again a weak political figure. The choice of Pranab Mukherjee, a seasoned politician, was the outcome of strategies and counter-strategies within Congress and its allies.
Modi’s choice of president in 2017, Ramnath Kovind, was pure tokenism because he was not a political heavyweight by any means. So was the choice of Droupadi Murmu. Modi scored brownie points in 2017 because Kovind represented the Scheduled Caste constituency, though he was not the first to do so. Narayanan preceded him. Murmu will be the first Scheduled Tribe representative to be President.
Besides the significant symbolism in the choice of Kovind and Murmu, Modi also displayed political cunning in choosing people who would never dare to clash with him on any issue.
Kovind played the ceremonial role assigned to him, and so will Murmu. Modi and his friends are sure to argue that there is no need for a strong President when there is a strong Prime Minister in Modi.
Modi Wants to Steer Clear of Confrontation
Tokenism has been an established practice in the Indian political power games, and it is put into practice much more in the case of the President’s office because it is considered a politically toothless position. Of course, it is not really the case if you consider the BJP’s three choices – Kalam, Kovind and Murmu. Kalam was an eminent defence technologist, though the liberal intelligentsia tried to celebrate him as a ‘people’s president’. Kovind has good credentials but he is not eminent, and neither is Murmu. Both are respectable and unblemished.
Modi knows full well that if a seasoned politician is made president, it is possible for him to turn the tables against his government. Apart from many other factors, one reason that Modi would not want Vice-President Venkaiah Naidu as President is that Naidu can be politically troublesome if he chooses to do so. We have the precedent in Neelam Sanjiva Reddy, who refused to make Jagjivan Ram the Prime Minister after Morarji Desai lost the vote of confidence and resigned. Then-Janata Party President, Chandra Shekhar, was livid with Reddy, and he even said that Reddy should be impeached. Modi does not want to face any confrontation or a crisis of that sort.
Working the System
The question, then, is whether India needs a president who is no more than a ceremonial head of state. In 1981, AR Antulay and Vasant Sathe floated the idea of a presidential form of government after Indira Gandhi returned to power in 1980. The idea did not take wings. Modi would perhaps prefer the presidential form of government, but he might have sensed that it is a more dangerous proposition because it is a nationwide direct election, which he may not win. He is not content to win his own seat from a Lok Sabha constituency. Secondly, he will lose control over Parliament.
The leader may not be inclined to raise the stakes of his popularity. So, he goes about meticulously planning the right candidate for the symbolic office of the President, and he is willing to work the system as it exists.
This does not take away from the fact that he enjoys being the only leader in the party and in the government, and he does not mind occupying the third position as Prime Minister in terms of the official protocol, after the President and the Vice-President.
The moral: a strong Prime Minister always looks for a weak President, and Modi’s choices prove the point.
(The writer is a New Delhi-based journalist. He tweets @ParsaJr. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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