The ruling Congress party coalition looks like it will at best limp its way to general elections in 2014, stung by a rash of corruption scandals that have tarnished Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s second term in office and led to a dismal performance in state assembly elections earlier this year.
Now the political establishment is abuzz about who will be the next president, a largely ceremonial post that comes open in July.
The incumbent by all accounts bears the hallmarks of the government she represents — ineffectual and damaged by accusations of corruption. Pratibha Devisingh Patil, whose tenure ends in July, was controversially allotted defence land to build a cosy retirement nest. With 12 trips overseas since taking over, she’s also racked up foreign travel bills that cost India more than 2 billion rupees ($39 million), the most by any Indian head of state.
Such lavishness has even led some to question the whole presidential institution within a parliamentary democracy. The president is the constitutional head but has limited powers, similar to that of the monarch in the United Kingdom, despite living in a 340-room palace that was once the British viceroy’s residence.
Weak as it is and with just a 30 pct share in the electoral college that selects the next president, the Congress party will struggle to impose its choice of candidate — such as current Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee who is thought to covet the post — especially since most parties say the next president should not be a politician.
The name of A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, Patil’s more popular predecessor, is being bandied about for a second term. Scientist Kalam, often called the father of India’s missile programme, is admired for his unassuming personality. If successful, the man dubbed the “people’s president”, now 80, would be the first former president to be re-elected.
It won’t be easy. Kalam was somewhat of a killjoy for the Congress in the past — in 2006, he held up a bill preventing the disqualification of MPs holding “offices of profit” — and with the ruling coalition on a sticky wicket, it may not want him to have a say in the appointment of the government after the 2014 general elections.
Under the constitution, the president has discretionary powers in the appointment of the prime minister, especially when no party wins a majority in parliamentary elections, and can also return bills sent for assent before they become law.
But if not Kalam, then who? While India’s most famous actor may not really have the gravitas for the job, a name like Ratan Tata could be a good non-political option. The chairman of the Tata Group is retiring in December and may well be the best brand ambassador to project India’s growing business clout overseas.
India has never had a businessman president and with the economic miracle slowly losing its shine, Tata, 74, could be a good choice to promote the country’s businesses.