THE Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) cannot hide its anti-Muslim fangs. Instead of building consensus behind the candidature of Hamid Ansari for presidentship, the party has appointed its top three leaders to find a candidate who commands the consent of most political parties. I cannot understand what is wrong with vice-president Ansari. He has handled the Rajya Sabha extremely well and before that he made the Aligarh Muslim University a really thriving academic institution during his tenure as the vice-chancellor. His erudition is beyond doubt and his commitment to secularism is without any blemish.
The non-BJP parties have come together to adopt vice-president Ansari who is acceptable to all parties. It would be embarrassing for him to be the opposition candidate when he is the country’s vice-president. Dr Abdul Kalam, former President, was the popular choice of several opposition parties for a second term but had to face a similar predicament before pulling out. So, all that he got was the re-naming of the Aurangzeb Road as Dr Abdul Kalam Road. The BJP is ultimately going to tick the choice of the RSS. It has indicated that it would keep in mind the secular ethos of the county. But it is neither here nor there because when it comes to selecting a person for the top constitutional post, a Muslim candidate would be far from the thought of the RSS.
It would ultimately depend on Prime Minister Narndra Modi to nudge the party to choose a person of his choice. And from the speeches made by the BJP president, Amit Shah, quite clearly indicated that the person thus chosen would be anybody but a Muslim. He has been touring different parts of the country, including the southern states, and exhorting that the choice of a presidential candidate should be someone who is acceptable to the ruling party.
The two houses of parliament and the state legislatures which comprise the Electoral College suggest that the BJP will have its way. The BJP’s appointment of a three-member committee — Rajnath Singh, Arun Jaitley and Venkaiah Naidu—who are part of Prime Minister Modi’s cabinet, makes it clear that the party’s top leadership will ultimately decide who should go to Rashtrapati Bhavan.
Speaker Sumitra Mahajan, who was initially, supported by the ruling party has been dropped. She is not being considered by either the DMK or the AIADMK. Understandably, the person has to be acceptable to the southern states like Andhra, Telangana, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Even LK Advani looked like the candidate of the BJP. Probably, the court verdict on Babri Masjid demolition may have forced the party to look elsewhere as he has been charged as part of a conspiracy to destroy the Masjid. Over the years, the rough ends in Advani had been rounded off and he is more like a person who went to Karachi and laid a wreath at the mausoleum of Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah.
If one were to look back, controversies between the President and Prime Ministers have not been rare. Of the seven previous presidents, only Dr Zakir Hussain and Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed left office without any public confrontation. Zakir Hussain, who died in harness, confined himself to scholarly pursuits while Ahmed was one of the most pliable heads of state India has ever had. It was during his tenure that the Emergency was declared and he signed the proclamation without verifying whether it had the Cabinet approval or not.
Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Dr Rajendra Prasad had many constitutional run-ins. Dr S. Radhakrishnan had even succeeded in getting defence minister Krishna Menon sacked after India’s debacle at the hands of the Chinese in 1962. In 1967, Radhakrishnan embarrassed the ruling Congress by allowing the Swatantra Party to parade its MLAs in Rashtrapati Bhavan to prove their majority in the Rajasthan Assembly. Even V V Giri, a prominent trade unionist who was elected with the help of Mrs Indira Gandhi then Congress President to the presidency, often expressed his reservations over anti-labour legislation. Thus he objected when the Centre wanted to dismiss striking Railway employees. He also registered his protest over the supersession of Supreme Court judges.
Then acting president B.D. Jatti, who succeeded Giri temporarily, proved more assertive. When requested by the Janata government to sign the ordinance dissolving nine assemblies in states ruled by the Congress, Jatti prevaricated, pleading that the Centre had no powers to prematurely dissolve duly-elected assemblies without proper reason. Then Prime Minister Morarji Desai was forced to hold out the threat of his resignation if Jatti delayed the ordinance and the Janata Party even organised angry demonstrations against the President.
Matters hardly improved even after the Janata Party installed Sanjiva Reddy. Reddy and Desai could not get along and the latter prevented the President from going abroad even on ceremonial visits. Reddy, nursing a grouse against the Janata government, made constitutional history when he invited Charan Singh to form a government after Morarji Desai lost his majority in the Lok Sabha. Reddy set yet another precedent when he dissolved the Lok Sabha on the advice of a prime minister who could not prove his majority. Even Zail Singh installed Rajiv Gandhi soon after Mrs Gandhi’s assassination even before he was elected to the parliamentary party. It is another matter that both Zail Singh and Rajiv Gandhi were at loggerheads more often than not.
I wish Pranab Mukherjee had utilized his term to erase the decision which he took during the emergency. He was the right-hand man of Sanjay Gandhi, an extra-constitutional authority. Hence, his name will not go down well in the history. Like his predecessors, he too was mired in controversies particularly when he published the book while in office. He could have waited for his retirement to pen down experience at Rashtrapati Bhavan. Meanwhile, the present government at the centre must explain how secularism can survive when soft-Hindutva is spreading in the country. By elevating Ansari as President the BJP would have assured the people that the country’s ethos cannot go astray and do things which do not fit into the idea of India: democratic and secular.
—The writer is a veteran Indian journalist, syndicated columnist, human rights activist and author.