Byline by M J Akbar: Past Forward
On the morning of the results of the elections for President of India in 1969, Mrs Indira Gandhi had two speeches ready, one to be delivered in case her candidate, Varahagiri Venkata Giri, won, and the other to be delivered in case he lost.
The second was a resignation speech. But Giri won, thanks to about 10,000 second preference votes cast in his favour by a barely-remembered politician, Chaudhry Charan Singh, who became Prime Minister in 1979 with Mrs Gandhi's help and lost his job without ever facing Parliament when Mrs Gandhi withdrew support within a matter of weeks.
Giri's victory in 1969 launched the Indira Gandhi era in Indian politics. Before that she was her father's daughter; after that she became the head of a family that has given us at least one other Prime Minister and remains in politics in an effort to provide more. It is likely of course that Indira Gandhi would have called for early elections in 1969 and might have pulled off the kind of victory she did in 1971, but not probable. She used the authority she derived from the victory in the Presidential elections to offer the country a new legislative, left-leaning programme, and it was this that caught the imagination of the poor and enabled her to base her 1971 campaign on the remarkable, and undefeatable slogan: "Woh kahte hain mujhe hatao, main kahti hoon Garibi Hatao (They say, remove me; I say, Remove Poverty)".
Without a spate of decisions like bank nationalisation and the abolition of princely privileges, this claim would have been unsustainable. Indira Gandhi broke the mould of politics as usual.
Does this mean that a government that cannot ensure the victory of its candidate in the election to the office of President must resign? No. More specifically, Dr Manmohan Singh will be under no compulsion to resign if the Congress candidate does not, by some mischance, become President of India in July.
Mrs Indira Gandhi was vulnerable only because she had taken a risk so volatile that it amounted to a gamble with her political future. She had split the Congress after the announcement of an official Congress candidate and set up her own nominee, V.V. Giri, as an independent. Giri wasn't much of an independent; he was completely dependent on Mrs Gandhi, but that takes us to another story. The culture of the President's office shifted subtly but sharply; Presidents became personally beholden to their benefactors.
The Prime Minister of India is in office through the will of only the Lok Sabha, whose members are directly elected by voters. A government does not need a majority in the Rajya Sabha, whose members are elected indirectly, to survive. The electorate for a Presidential poll extends not only to the Rajya Sabha but also the Assemblies in the states, which have no part to play in the creation of a Union government. The President has a diffused constituency, relevant to the diffused nature of his responsibilities. The Prime Minister has a specific constituency and he lives or dies by the will of just the Lok Sabha. A Prime Minister's majority could be on a totally different trajectory from the President's.
In fact, this is the emerging scenario of the next few years. Power at the Centre will have little relation to power in the States. At one point, the Congress ruled 15 states while the NDA was in office at the Centre; within three years of reaching Delhi, the Congress has been reduced to Andhra, Assam, Haryana, Delhi and a bubble called Goa.
There is one simple message: Big Power politics is over in Indian democracy. Or, more accurately, it has been suspended until the Small Powers self-destruct, which may take a while. Decisions will have to be made through consultation and cooperation, rather than imposition.
However, despite being honed down to a Medium Power the Congress still cannot quite get out of the Big Power mentality, whether in government or as a party. We have just witnessed the faintly ridiculous sight of the Manmohan Singh government describing India as a Big Power, and dictating to Sri Lanka the policies it would prefer a "Small Power" to adopt. This is not the language of strength. It is the language a government uses when power has gone to its head, affecting it with cerebral malaria.
The Congress cannot take the Big Power approach towards partners in government either. Patronage is not the best way to protect a long-term relationship and an ego massage provides only very temporary relief from the headaches of co-existence. But if the Congress is tempted to insist upon a preferred party nominee, rather than a compromise consensus, for the next President, then there are good reasons.
The first, and most important, lies in the nature of the office. The President of India has, by the standards of Delhi, a sedentary job. His general requirement is to be nice, which, one may add, not all Presidents manage. But at crucial moments on the political calendar, he has to rise above partisan concerns and protect the letter and spirit of the Constitution. Very often, it is the spirit that determines what the interpretation of the letter should be. The most important of these moments for the next President will come after the next general elections, when the new government will be patched out of post-result alliances. It will lie in the President's will to give the first option on the basis of whichever standard he selects. It could be on the basis of the largest single party, or the largest bloc: the choice will be his.
The Congress is not buying the consensus-candidate bait for the very good reason that the consensus that is holding up the UPA will break down before the general elections. The Left, for instance, and the Congress will not have an electoral alliance. The Congress would prefer a President, therefore, who would be more sympathetic to its needs than to the interests of the Left Front after the results.
All political parties are, logically, playing the long game. This Presidential election is not about the politics of 2007, but about the potential formations of 2008 and 2009. If the Congress bends today, it might not be able to stand up next year. That is the thinking that has made Shivraj Patil the most likely candidate of the ruling coalition. Those who doubt his ability to win will hear a threat: the failure to elect Patil might bring down the government, and eliminate nearly two years of ministerial joy. That is not strictly necessary, at least according to the Constitutional fine print. If there is any erosion in moral authority, it will not trouble anyone's sleep. Political advantage, or necessity, is the glue that keeps a coalition together. No President, of any hue, would dare challenge a majority in the Lok Sabha.
There has been only one election for President that has shaped the future; every other President was elected without fuss, because he was a creature of the present, and represented the will of a consolidated establishment. The establishment was cracked open by Mrs Indira Gandhi in 1969, and out of that split emerged President Giri. Comparisons are never exact, but this much is evident: the Centre is not holding in 2007. This too has become an election about the future.
Get ready to count those second preference votes.