By Harihar Swarup
The BJP’s Ram Nath Kovind is all set to be the country’s second Dalit President, first being K R Narayanan. He was born and brought up in Uttar Pradesh. His big qualification in the current Presidential election is that he is a Dalit. Till now the Rashtrapati Bhavan’s third occupant, Zakir Hussain, was the only one with direct association with key state. But he wasn’t born in Uttar Pradesh. His family migrated to Farukkhabad from Hyderabad, his place of birth was in what is now Telangana.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP President Amit Shah sprang a big surprise second time by announcing Kovind, now Bihar Governor, as NDA’s nominee for the office of the President. Perhaps, this surprise is not so intense as Modi-Shah’s decision to anoint a relatively inexperienced Yogi Adityanath as UP Chief Minister in March. Kovind’s name hadn’t find mention in the various lists of possible candidates.
Kovind is not as erudite as his predecessor Pranab Mukherjee. A Supreme Court lawyer, Kovind has served BJP as National spokesman, two time Rajya Sabha member and, most importantly, as former President of its SC/ST morcha—it is Dalit credentials that appear to have tilted the scales decisively in his favour. He is expected to win Presidential election comfortably after getting the backing of AIADMK, TRS and Bihar Chief Minister, Nitish Kumar. Now Shiv Sena, which has some reservation on Kovind’s nomination, has also fallen in line. Shah has aimed to break opposition unity, putting in a bind not just SP and BSP in UP but also JDU and RJD in Bihar; Congress found itself in a catch-22 situation. It would be accused of being anti-Dalit if it opposes Kovind while supporting him would effectively mean giving a walk-over to the BJP. Wisely, Congress and other opposition parties fielded former Speaker, Meira Kumar, a Dalit, to oppose Kovind.
Modi has clearly set his eyes on 2019 general election in describing Kovind’s nomination as empowering a Dalit farmer’s son who will be voice for the poor and downtrodden. The BJP has already managed to break BSP’s stranglehold over the Dalit vote in UP assembly elections.
Let us go back in the history of Presidential elections. A meeting of the Congress Parliamentary Board in Bangalore on July 11, 1969, set the stage for mother of all poll battles for President’s chair. The syndicate faction in the Congress, led by party President S. Nijalingappa, decided to field Neelam Sanjiva Reddy to succeed the then President Zakir Hussain who had died. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi countered the rival group by suggesting the name of Dalit leader Jagjivan ram. Nijalingappa put the issue to vote and carried the day with four in favour of Reddy and two against him.
Acting President V V Giri announced his decision to fight as an Independent. Indira Gandhi, meanwhile, saw to it that the old guard did not get any sense of her plans. A wary Nijalingappa made the mistake of appealing to Swatantra Party and the Jana Sangh, which had fielded former finance minister C D Deshmukh, to caste second preference votes for Reddy. Days before polling, Indira gave a call to Congress voters to “vote according to their conscience”. The fight was so close that no one got past the requisite cutoff in the first round. Giri won after counting of second preference votes. The election became a precursor to split in the Congress.
Notwithstanding constant calls by parties for a consensus for President, a unanimous election is rarity. Rajendra Prasad was elected unopposed for a brief period, 1950 to 1952. He faced opposition in the subsequent election in 1952 and 1957.
Though the 1950 election did not witness a technical fight, it was marked by deft out-manoeuvring of PM Jawaharlal Nehru by his deputy Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru were in favour of Governor-general Rajagopalachari continuing as President, since Nehru was comfortable working with him. Patel favoured a right-wing conservative like him. Prasad nudged by Patel, rallied support from Congress MPs who were not receptive to Rajaji’s candidature since he had opposed Quit India movement. On October 5, 1949, Nehru, unaware of Patel’s plan convened a meeting of Congress MPs to push through Rajaji’s name. His proposal met with hostile response. Nehru had to abandon the move and Prasad’s nomination became fait accompli. Nehru got over the embarrassment and himself proposed the name of Prasad on January 23, 1950, seconded by Patel. Prasad was elected without a contest.
Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, a widely acclaimed scholar, had been waiting in the wings for 10 years as vice-president. He won against his nearest rival Hari Ram. He served from 1962 to 1967.
Giri’s retirement in 1974 was followed by the election of Fakhurddin Ali Ahmed. The Congress under Indira Gandhi retrieved a lot of ground lost to the opposition. Ahmed was second Muslim elected to the post. Like Zakir Hussain, Ahmed too died in office. He was the President who proclaimed Emergency at Indira’s bidding.
Indira had blocked Reddy’s prospects in 1969. Morarji Desai, who was Prime Minister at that time wanted danseuse Rukmani Arundale to be President but she declined; Reddy won unopposed. In 1982, Indira Gandhi, now back in office, picked Zail Singh for President’s post.
He won and, his rival, H R Khanna, a former CJI was defeated by huge margin. Zail Singh overwhelmed by emotion remarked: “If my leader had said I should pick up a broom and sweep, I would have done that”. Indira might have thought that her choice will go down in Sikh masses and help her check Khalistan movement, but the movement got more intense, leading to operation Blue Star and assassination of Indira herself.
Rajiv Gandhi nominated Vice-President R. Venkatraman in 1987. Given the vast Parliamentary majority, he secured in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s assassination, Venkataraman was elected with 7.40 lakh votes; the opposition candidate, former judge justice V R Krishna Iyer , got 2.82 lakh votes. Shankar Dayal Sharma, a Nehru-Gandhi family loyalist, succeeded Venkataraman, defeating the Opposition candidate G G Swell, a former Lok Sabha Deputy Speaker. (IPA Service)
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