The election of India’s new President has once again elevated a partisan politician to the high office. Mr. Ram Nath Kovind is a loyalist of the ruling BJP party. He joins a long list of India’s presidents who were similarly anointed for their fealty to the party in power. Given that the presidency is a ceremonial position, the people have become accepting of the sham elections and pliable presidents.
But this was not the intention behind the creation of the office. In its original design, the presidency was no rubber stamp. India’s Constituent Assembly devised a president with some discretionary powers. During Indira Gandhi’s Emergency the Constitution was amended to strip the presidency of all discretion, compelling him to act as advised by the office of the Prime Minister.
In the following article, famous WSJ columnist Sadanand Dhume writes that “the country ought to pick the best person for the job, not just the most convenient politician.”
India’s Incredibly Shrunken Presidency
By Sadanand Dhume
Ram Nath Kovind, a 71-year-old lawyer and politician formerly with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, will take office next week as India’s 14th president. The position is largely ceremonial—executive power rests with the prime minister—but nonetheless symbolically important. The president is India’s head of state, its first citizen, so to speak.
Mr. Kovind’s comfortable election Thursday—about two-thirds of an electorate of roughly 4,900 state and central legislators picked him over his opposition-backed rival—underscores the BJP’s dominance of national politics. It also highlights an unfortunate fact: The near-monopoly of career politicians on the country’s most exalted office.
In India, a highly regarded scholar, general or businessman has virtually no chance of becoming president. Indeed, in the run-up to the election the only names seriously speculated about in the media belonged to politicians. For India’s unimaginative leaders, the idea of elevating the great trade economist Jagdish Bhagwati, the industrialist Ratan Tata or the erudite cricketer Rahul Dravid to the presidency would be dead on arrival.
Both the country and the presidency are poorer for choosing from a shallow talent pool. As India integrates into the global economy, its president could be someone who both represents the country with flair on the world stage and sets an example of excellence for fellow citizens. Instead, Indians invariably end up with someone spit out by a crude algorithm of caste, region and likely fealty to whoever happens to be in power.
Take Mr. Kovind, plucked from relative obscurity as the unelected governor of the northern state of Bihar after the BJP announced last month that he would be its presidential candidate. According to media reports, Mr. Kovind twice failed to pass the exams for the highly competitive Indian Administrative Service before embarking upon a moderately successful career as a lawyer and politician. For much of his life, Mr. Kovind toiled silently in the BJP. He may be the party’s only former spokesperson known for not speaking very much.
On Twitter , Prime Minister Narendra Modi hailed Mr. Kovind as “a farmer’s son” from “a humble background.” And BJP leaders have made much of his being born a Dalit, the caste grouping formerly known as untouchables. He is only the second Dalit to be elevated to the presidency.
Nobody ought to grudge a journey from poverty to prominence, a hearteningly familiar occurrence in Indian democracy. In few other countries would someone born in Mr. Kovind’s circumstances end up occupying a 340-room sandstone palace built for the British viceroy during colonial rule. But strip away the easy sentimentalism of the moment and you’re left with little else.
Bluntly put, Mr. Kovind has not earned his job for displaying any particularly outstanding qualities of head or heart. He will be president because he’s a party loyalist who happens to have been born in the right home.
Political pundits say Mr. Kovind’s caste identity—a Dalit from the populous state of Uttar Pradesh—may help Mr. Modi’s campaign for re-election in two years. Young Dalit voters played a crucial role in propelling the BJP to power nationally three years ago, and in Uttar Pradesh earlier this year.
The new president’s longstanding ties with the BJP and its parent organization, the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteer Corps), could also come in handy after the elections. When there’s no clear winner, the president decides on who gets the first shot at forming a government.
Not all of India’s presidents have been uninspiring political plodders. The second president, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1962-67), was a highly regarded philosopher who had taught ethics at Oxford University and published in European journals.
The 11th president, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam (2002-07), worked his way up India’s elite defense science establishment, and earned the moniker “missile man” before becoming president. Kalam, who died two years ago, remains beloved among many Indians as a down-to-earth leader who preferred the bustle of a classroom full of students to the pomp and ceremony of his office.
For the most part, however, India’s presidential palace has been occupied by a string of mediocrities. According to a popular cartoon, one president reportedly signed Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s 1975 proclamation suspending democracy while in the bathtub. Another famously declared that he would gladly sweep the floors at Mrs. Gandhi’s command.
The 12th president, Pratibha Patil (2007-12), another Nehru-Gandhi family loyalist, came into office tagged by corruption allegations. She left it notorious for burdening the exchequer with extravagant foreign tours.
Compared with such predecessors, Mr. Kovind has reasonable odds of completing a successful term as president. Nonetheless, his selection has done nothing to burnish the reputation of either Mr. Modi or his chief lieutenant, BJP President Amit Shah.
With the numbers on their side, Messrs. Modi and Shah could have shown a little imagination and given India a president like Kalam, someone whose nonpolitical achievements merited respect and whose personality attracted affection. Instead the country just got yet another humdrum politician meant to check the right boxes and not rock the boat.
[Mr. Dhume is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a columnist for WSJ.com.]
This article first appeared on wsj.com on 20 July 2017