Presidential polls in India in the past mostly lacked the melodrama that generally characterises other elections – the ones to the legislative assemblies and councils in the states and to the both Houses of Parliament. Apart from a brief flurry of speculations in media and political circles over choice of candidates, the presidential polls were almost always marked by foregone conclusions, unlike the cliffhanger general elections. The 2012 race to Raisina Hills is no exception, with the ruling UPA’s candidate Pranab Mukherjee apparently set to have a cakewalk against his rival P A Sangma, backed by the BJP and a few opposition parties.
There was, however, a glaring exception in 1969, when the presidential election not only turned exciting, but also proved to be a significant milestone in the politics of the country, particularly within the Congress, as it reinforced the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty’s still unquestionable control over the grand old party.
The then President Zakir Hussain died in office on May 3, 1969. Vice President V V Giri took over as the acting President. Though Prime Minister Indira Gandhi wanted Giri to be the ruling Congress’ candidate for the presidential poll later that year, the party’s working committee announced Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy as its choice. A proposal from the party’s first family was shot down by the Congress Working Committee in 1969, when the rift between Indira Gandhi and the Syndicate – comprising stalwarts like K Kamraj, Atulya Ghosh, S K Patil and Congress President S Nijalingappa – was at its peak. The Syndicate was suspicious that the Prime Minister – aided by advisors like P N Haksar and “Young Turks” like Chandra Shekhar – was going out of the party’s control. Though Reddy was the official candidate of the Congress, Giri stepped down as the acting President to contest the election as an independent.
The run-up to the election turned exciting as Gandhi refrained from speaking in support of Reddy and later even went to the extent of calling for “conscious vote”, thus indicating her support to Giri. Her close aides were secretly canvassing against Reddy. The Syndicate then reached out to Jan Sangh and Swatantra Party seeking support for Reddy. Gandhi’s camp cried foul and demanded a special session of the All India Congress Committee, but it was turned down. The electoral battle saw a nail-biting finish. No candidate secured 4,18,169 votes, the quota fixed for election. Candidate after candidate was excluded till only two candidates-- V V Giri (with 4,20,077 votes) and Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy (with 4,05,427 votes) remained in the field. Giri, who secured the quota, was declared elected.
The acrimony later led to the historic split of the Congress. The poll thus became a milestone that marked Gandhi’s ascent to the pinnacle of absolute power.
The first presidential election was also marked by differences between Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Home Minister Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel over nomination of the candidate. Though Nehru wanted first Governor General C Rajagopalachari to be the first President as well, he had to buckle under pressure and accept Patel’s choice of Rajendra Prasad, who eventually made a hitherto unbroken record by winning the race to Raisina Hills twice – in 1952 and 1957.
In the next two presidential polls in 1962 and 1967, the Congress nominees Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Zakir Hussain had a cakewalk as the party had absolute majority in Parliament and most of the state legislative Assemblies. After the difficult one in 1969, the Congress – now under absolute control of Gandhi – had no problem putting Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed in the Rashtrapati Bhavan in 1974. Two years after he signed the proclamation to impose emergency on the recommendation of Gandhi’s Government, Ahmed died in office, necessitating another election. Reddy, now a nominee of the Janata Party Government, was elected unopposed – a record yet to be broken.
Though most of his predecessors had a more-or-less forgettable stint in the Rashtrapati Bhavan, Zail Singh, who was elected as seventh President in 1982, made a difference. He ignored calls from the Sikh community to resign in protest against Operation Blue Star in Golden Temple of Amritsar in 1984, but later sent a written explanation to the Akal Takht. He is believed to have later played a role in plotting dismissal of Rajiv Gandhi Government in the wake of the Bofors Scam.
The role of Rashtrapati Bhavan, however, turned more significant after the advent of coalition era in Indian politics in late 1980s. As the eighth President, R Venkataraman had to administer oath of office to three PMs – V P Singh, Chandra Shekhar and P V Narasimha Rao – during his five-year tenure. His successor Shankar Dayal Sharma had to do the same for three more – Atal Behari Vajpayee, H D Deve Gowda and Inder Kumar Gujral – between May 1996 and April 1997. The 10th President K R Narayanan – first Dalit – had to dissolve the Lok Sabha twice as no one was in a position to win confidence of the House. He had to take crucial decisions during political instability in 1998 and 1999 and administered the oath of office to Vajpayee as PM twice.
The ruling BJP and Congress came together to support A P J Abdul Kalam in the 2002 poll. The Congress, however, was not willing to support him for a second term in 2007 and instead nominated hitherto little known Pratibha Patil.