The other three Ds are debate, dissent and decision.
In a week from now votes will be cast to elect India’s 15th Rashtrapati—India’s Head of State and Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces. Ram Nath Kovind will pass on the baton to his successor in a fortnight’s time. Having succeeded high profile Pranab Mukherjee, Kovind had an onerous task. He acquitted himself well and even set some precedents.
Kovind’s was the presidency during which due to the Covid pandemic public interaction was restricted. For the first time in the history of Rashtrapati Bhavan foreign envoys presented their credentials through video conferencing. Digitalisation made way for a slew of British era protocols. Austerity was introduced in the very first year of his term. Since Independence Day, 2017 the guest list at President’s “At Home” was pruned—the earlier mela atmosphere gave way to sobriety.
Kovind presided over the Republic at a time when political discourse perhaps reached its nadir. Disruption was made synonymous with dissent both in and outside Parliament. The process began some decades back but reached a crescendo in the past years. So much so that on the eve of the Monsoon Session, which begins tomorrow, the Lok Sabha Secretariat has come out with a booklet listing “unparliamentary” words which will be liable to be expunged if used by MPs. In this context, Kovind’s remark in 2017 during the Diamond Jubilee of Bengaluru’s Vidhana Soudha ought to act as talisman: “We are aware of the three Ds of the legislature, that it is a place to debate, dissent and finally decide. And if we add a fourth D, decency, only then does the fifth D, namely, democracy, become a reality.”
Rashtrapati, though elected by the support of the ruling dispensation, is deemed non-partisan. During his tenure Kovind has met and interacted with politicians of all hues. A painting made by Mamata Banerjee and presented to him adorns the Rashtrapati Bhavan walls. In his 2017 Bengaluru speech, the BJP’s stance notwithstanding, the Rashtrapati paid tribute to Tipu Sultan, who “died a heroic death fighting the British”. Kovind referred to Tipu as a “pioneer in the development and the use of Mysore rockets in warfare” and said that Europe had later adopted Tipu’s technology. During a visit to Kerala he had praised the performance of the Left Front regime of Pinarayi Vijayan.
The Rashtrapati’s election was held in April till 1967. The death of the fourth President, Dr Zakir Husain n May 1969 changed the calendar. The election that followed was a watershed. It was the fulcrum of a split in the Congress behemoth. Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy, who was Speaker of Lok Sabha, was put up by the organisational wing of Congress—he was challenged by the Vice President, V.V. Giri, who was the choice of the parliamentary wing led by Indira Gandhi and backed by the Left, which was then the largest non-Congress entity in the electoral college (comprising MPs and MLAs of all states). The 1969 poll saw a three-way contest—C.D. Deshmukh was put up by right-wing parties, Swatantra Party, Jan Sangh (precursor of BJP), et cetera, who had won sizable seats in the 1967 general election. None of the three candidates polled the necessary votes to cross the half-way mark. As per rules, Deshmukh, who finished third, was eliminated and his second preference votes were counted, which saw Giri breeze past the official Congress candidate. 1969 created a precedent. Till then if the President was not there, the Vice President was to officiate. Giri acted as President from 3 May to 20 July, when he quit to file his nomination. In the absence of the President and Vice President, Speaker of Lok Sabha was to be the acting Head of State. In this case, Reddy too had quit as Speaker to contest. The Constitution was amended. Chief Justice of India was added to the list of Acting Head of State. Justice M. Hidayatullah was thus President between 20 July and 24 August 1969, when Giri was sworn in. Hidayatullah’s tenure was not lacklustre: On 31 July 1969, he was the President of India, who hosted US President Richard Milhous Nixon during his short visit to New Delhi. Post retirement from Supreme Court, Hidayautullah was elected Vice President in 1979 and served a full term.
The Rashtrapati Bhavan Museum, which was set up during the tenure of Pranab Mukherjee, displays an image of Hidayatullah in the pantheon of Rashtrapatis. Apart from him, B.D. Jatti, Vice President (1974-79) also is included in the pantheon as he acted as President between 11 February and 25 July 1977 after the 6th Rashtrapati, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, passed away. Ahmed had signed the declaration of Emergency on 26 June 1975—he died barely three weeks after Indira Gandhi relaxed the Emergency and announced elections. Jatti, thus, was the President of India when the first non-Congress regime was sworn in, in March 1977. The elections which followed saw Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy being elected President unopposed, eight years after his 1969 bid. His swearing in on 25 July 1977 has set the cycle of Rashtrapati being sworn in on that day every five years since.
The Rashtrapati poll has seen many sidelights. In 1967, the Opposition choice, former Chief Justice of India, K. Subba Rao, had vowed that he will challenge the Article 74 stipulation, which entails the President to abide by aid and advice of the Cabinet. In 1982, Opposition put up Justice H.R. Khanna against Giani Zail Singh—he was known for his fiercely independent views. Another eminent Supreme Court Judge, V.R. Krishna Iyer, lost to R. Venkataraman in 1987. In 2002, Indian National Army veteran Laxmi Sehgal was put up by the Left against A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. High profile bureaucrat and “fierce” Election Commissioner, T.N. Seshan lost to K.R. Narayanan in 1999—polling only 50,631 votes against the winner’s 956,290.
From present trends it appears that Droupadi Murmu is slated to be declared elected on 21 July. She will be the second woman after Pratibha Patil (2007-12) and the first Tribal to adorn the Rashtrapati Bhavan. Twice earlier, Tribal leaders, both from Meghalaya, contested, as Opposition candidates—G.G. Swell (former Lok Sabha Deputy Speaker) in 1992, against Dr Shankar Dayal Sharma; and former Lok Sabha Speaker and co-founder of NCP, Purno Agitok Sangma, in 2012, against Pranab Mukherjee.
Till 1967, Vice Presidents were elevated to the Rashtrapati Bhavan. Dr Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan, Dr Zakir Husain and V.V. Giri were succeeded by Gopal Swarup Pathak in 1969—he was the first Veep who was overlooked. Thereafter, B.D. Jatti also was not elevated. R. Venkataraman; Dr S.D. Sharma and K.R. Narayanan were Veeps who made it to the Rashtrapati Bhavan. In 2007, Vice President Bhairon Singh Shekhawat lost to Pratibha Patil. Venkaiah Naidu, who, like Shekhawat, was a frontline BJP stalwart till being elected Vice President, seems ready to hang his boots. Two Veeps enjoyed double terms—Dr Radhakrishnan (1952, 1957) and Hamid Ansari (2007, 2012).
Yashwant Sinha, who is the 17-party Opposition choice in 2022, is not the first former Cabinet minister to contest. N. Sanjeeva Reddy (1969), C.D. Deshmukh (1969), and P.A. Sangma (2012) precede him. In the first election, Dr Rajendra Prasad had been opposed by K.T. Shah, a member of the Constituent Assembly, backed by the Socialists. In his campaign, Yashwant Sinha has appealed that a “rubber stamp” be not elected. During her tenure as Governor of Jharkhand, the Raghubar Das-led BJP government in Ranchi got through a bill in the Assembly seeking to amend the Chhotanagpur Tenancy Act 1908 and the Santhal Paragana Tenancy Act 1949, which would make tribal lands available for commercial use. Governor Murmu sent the Bill back questioning how this move was to be viewed in terms of tribal welfare. The Bill was quietly dropped. The present ruling party of Jharkhand, JMM, has broken ranks with the Opposition to back Murmu, notwithstanding postulation of JMM’s government partner Congress’ spokesperson Ajoy Kumar that “Droupadi Murmu represents very evil philosophy of India”. Congress, which was overwhelmed and bulldozed by other Opposition parties to back Sinha (whose political track record was never pro-Congress), perhaps could pick a thought or two from President Ram Nath Kovind’s talisman on “D” for decency.