As pointed out by the Prime Minister himself, the campaign for the 14th presidency was free of mudslinging and rancour, unlike the 2007 election of Pratibha Devi Singh Patil. Even the BJP’s arch political rivals who set up Meira Kumar against Ram Nath Kovind posited the contest as a battle of ideologies.
Regardless of the desirablity of consensus in elections to high constitutional offices, contest is integral to and at times inevitable in a democracy. In Kovind’s case, there was a near-consensus on his name with a host of non-NDA parties lining up behind his candidature.
Presenting the pro-Kovind mobilisation as a divide in the Congress-led Opposition ranks is but one way of looking at it. In reality, it places greater responsibility on the new incumbent in our increasingly competitive polity. Expectations of him became more acute in the light of his rival’s decorous electioneering for the high office.
I remember Kovind’s predecessor Pranab Mukherjee letting it be known at the outset of his tenure, that he’d run a constitutional presidency. His term overlapped the governments of Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi. But he broadly kept the promise of adhering to the book — barring the imposition of President’s rule in Uttarakhand which the Court overturned to his chagrin and that of the Modi regime on whose advice he signed the proclamation.
Like Mukherjee who won during the UPA rule, Kovind’s tenure will outlast that of the NDA that made him its candidate. His principal challenge won’t be dissimilar to the one faced by past presidencies: safeguarding the constitution without locking horns with the elected regime, or lying prostrate before it in the manner Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed did in the 1970s sullied by the imposition of Emergency rule.
APJ Abdul Kalam assumed office when AB Vajpayee was Prime Minister. But he was a compromise choice, an outlier who earned a name devising defence systems. In that sense, Kovind’s place in history is already secured as the Republic’s first President from the BJP-RSS’s ideological stock.
But as the country’s first citizen, his allegiance now is to the Constitution — in letter, spirit and sensitivity. The manner in which he accomplishes the task will embellish or demolish his legacy. His has to be a single book work religion.
The first Dalit to occupy the high office was K R Narayanan, the tenth president whom none opposed except the Shiv Sena. Kovind is second. But regional, caste or linguistic identities that might dictate nominations have to be subsumed bu the demands of office.
Narayanan for instance never let his caste background dictate his conduct in the Rashtrapati Bhavan. In fact, he resented being branded the country’s first Dalit president, asking close aides whether Zakir Hussain or Zail Singh were remembered as first Muslim and Sikh presidents? His emphasis was on what Bhimrao Ambedkar called ‘constitutional morality’ as the guiding light of the presidency bound by the aid and advice of the cabinet.
Such nuances shouldn’t be lost on Kovind — a former Governor —who studied law and practised it in the Supreme Court. But he will need to learn a lot while on the job, unlike Mukherjee, his immediate predecessor, whose familiarity with the system was surpassed only by YB Chavan, Swaran Singh and Jagjivan Ram, none of whom became President.
Compared to Kovind’s two terms in the Rajya Sabha, Mukherjee was Member of Parliament for 43 years, minister for 22 years and member of the Congress working committee for 28 years. That gives an idea of the size of the shoes the new President steps into.
Even Narayanan and Kalam held administrative offices before getting elevated. When they made a point, they were heard and sought to be convinced or persuaded by the executive with sane reasoning. Example: Mukherjee’s discomfiture over repeated promulgation of the enemy-property ordinance that took time getting Parliament’s nod.
The equation between the presidency and the elected dispensation has to be based on mutual respect, a healthy regard that facilitates an exchange of views. The PM’s equation with the new President might personally not be as deferential as it was with the vastly experienced Mukherjee, whom he recently called a father figure. But he’d have to accede to reason to help Kovind attain venerability as the keeper of the Constitution.