India’s presidential palace, Rashtrapati Bhavan (Pic:http://presidentofindia.nic.in/)
The election of a new president of India does not normally make for riveting television simply because it is a largely ceremonial position that becomes consequential only during extreme constitutional crises.
The president’s job most of the time is to look deeply purposeful without really knowing what that purpose is. Of course, on paper the president embodies enormous constitutional powers in terms of appointing prime ministers, state governors, Supreme Court and high court judges, attorneys-general, and ambassadors as well declaring and concluding wars, granting clemencies and even dismissing governments. However, most of these decisions are presented to the president as a fait accompli by the executive under the prime minister. The president can always choose to chart an independent course but more often than not they do not because they have reached that position after a great deal of political distillation and are primed to conduct themselves with a certain predictability.
During normal times the image of the country’s president is one of an incumbent with undefined gravitas who does largely ceremonial and symbolic things by walking in measured steps to various public events. It is also someone lives in the the world’s largest presidential palace spread over 360 rooms covering 200,000 square feet but barely able to use one percent of that behemoth of pomp and circumstance.
Since the Rashtrapati Bhavan, as the palace is officially known, was built for the English viceroys during the British Raj lording over the ‘Jewel in the Crown’ that was India it was designed to convey enormity of the great empire in a grand and majestic manner. Since India’s independence it has been the residence of the country’s first citizen who has to be careful enough not to appear like an indigenous avatar of the viceroys.
These days 24/7 news channels are trying desperately to extract some viewership out of what has traditionally been a staid, non-news event for the better part of last six decades. It was just once, in 1969, that the election of the president became contentious. The ruling Congress Party of the day was split as it chose Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy as its candidate rather than doing the conventional thing by letting Vice President V V Giri to become president. Giri eventually won.
It is amusing to see blowhard television anchors holding forth with the usual suspects as panelists as India prepares yet again to elect a new president. The term of the current incumbent, a painfully lackluster and remarkably devoid of gravitas Pratibha Patil prepares to leave office in July. Fortunately for the news channels, there is some element of drama simply because the main ruling coalition led by the Congress Party does not have enough parliamentary and state legislative strength to be able to elect its own candidate without humoring the opposition. That sets up some conflict and jockeying which television news channels are valiantly trying to package as something newsworthy.
When you have Mani Shankar Aiyar, perhaps India’s most uninhibited, articulate, thorough, entertaining, intellectually sound albeit often gratuitously provocative politician and television talking head, sounding sober on shows about who should be the next president, you get a measure of how much of a non-news event this is.(Excuse the long sentence).
All kinds of names, including corporate giants, legal scholars, movie stars and seasoned politicians are being thrown up as possible contenders. My personal interest stems from the fact that Sam Pitroda, my friend, the subject of my first biography and someone widely considered the father of India’s information and telecommunications revolution, has gained considerable traction in recent weeks. I would rate his prospects at less than 10 percent at this stage.