As the countdown begins for the election of the next President, the permutations and combinations within the electoral college — comprising the elected members of the two Houses of Parliament and the State legislatures — have found their limits. What is now clear is that the twelfth occupant of the Rashtrapati Bhavan will be a joint candidate of the Congress, the Left parties, and the Bahujan Samaj Party. The one thing that needs to be settled in the next couple of weeks is the name of that candidate. Since the healthy convention against a second term for a President seems set in stone, the candidacy of A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, who won in 2002 with the support of both the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress, has been ruled out of court, among others by former Prime Minister A. B. Vajpayee on behalf of the BJP. It follows that if there is an electoral college contest for President, it will be along the lines the polity stands divided, post-1998, at the national level: a joint candidate of the United Progressive Alliance, the Left, and the BSP versus a candidate of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance. While it is possible that the BJP will strike a deal on this issue with the Samajwadi Party, it cannot count on the support of the Telugu Desam Party in Andhra Pradesh or the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu. The main opposition party might be tempted to field Vice-President Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, if only to prove a point — given the virtual certainty of the Congress, the Left, and the BSP opting for a `political nominee.’ But point made or not, it looks very much like a one horse race.
In 2002, the numbers in the electoral college were such that the leader of the ruling coalition, the BJP, felt obliged to reach out to its principal rival, the Congress, in a consensus-building exercise. The result was the choice of an `apolitical’ President who was, in some ways, a national icon. The candidacy of Mr. Kalam, a technocrat who belonged to the Muslim minority community, was first mooted by Mulayam Singh, S.P. chief. Mr. Kalam symbolised the success of India’s missile development programme (some would say he adored weapons of mass destruction, especially post-Pokhran II, without of course favouring their use) and found acceptance with both the BJP and the Congress. On that occasion, the Left symbolically fielded its own candidate, the redoubtable `Captain’ (Dr.) Lakshmi Sahgal. The political situation is vastly different now. There is a consensus among those who have the numbers to settle the occupancy of the Rashtrapati Bhavan that the next President of India must have, in addition to personal integrity, a political background, impeccable secular credentials, a fine sense of constitutional balance, and a conception of the constitutional presidency in a parliamentary form of government that scrupulously avoids over-reach.