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Trouble With "Secret" Ballot

UPA and NDA have logged horns again with the president and vice president elections in fray. Harish Gupta analysis this sub ultimate test of Indian Polity

The presidential election, and that of Vice President, which is due next month, are, in public perception, a bit like a one-horse race. The race for President is more broad-based as it involves members of the state assemblies, while the VP election is a ‘capital’ affair as its electoral college is limited to the 545 members of the Lok Sabha and 245 members of the Rajya Sabha. 

Going by the equation of party loyalties, there is not an iota of chance of opposition victory in either of the contests. For the vice-presidential election, 550 of the 790 votes are targeted by the NDA. The UPA, with Congress president Sonia Gandhi being its most prominent member, has nominated a glamorous candidate, Gopal Krishna Gandhi, for VP. A prominent public figure, his many laurels as a former ambassador, IAS officer and state governor are overshadowed by his identity as grandson of the Mahatma. But the numbers with BJP and its allies are overwhelming; they’re big enough to turn ‘Gandhi’ into just a name. 

So there is little reason for the three large oaks of the BJP, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, party chief Amit Shah and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, to be swayed by the opposition’s efforts to unite. Yet they seem to be unexpectedly swinging. Till last week, they couldn’t decide on anything smoothly. But VP's candidate selection was somewhat quick. In the hope of finding light at the end of the tunnel, Shah is rushing to Keshav Kunj, the RSS headquarters in Delhi, for discussions with functionaries like Bhaiyaaji Joshi and Krishna Gopal. He also held consultations with the RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat who was in Delhi recently. On the other hand, the opposition seems energised as if by a sudden monsoon storm. At Sonia Gandhi’s call, 17 parties assembled library last week to select Gopal Krishna Gandhi as their candidate. This resolve was missing a few days ago when NDA took the lead in finalising Ram Nath Kovind as its presidential candidate, thus almost pushing UPA to hunt for another Dalit; it finally selected an over-entitled politician. 

The determination of the opposition to put up a fight for the Vice President election has forced creases on BJP’s forehead. The opposition’s serried ranks have been largely successful in papering over their internal differences. CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechuri and representative of Trinamool Congress led by Mamata Banerjee, seemingly rivals for the anti-BJP space, have stood together. Despite Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar’s edginess over RJD chief Lalu Yadav’s son Tejashwi continuing as deputy chief minister regardless of anti-corruption cases closing in on the Yadav family, he welcomed, in unison with Lalu, Gopal Krishna Gandhi’s candidature. The Samajwadi Party, fractured between papa Mulayam and son Akhilesh, witnessed the latter unequivocally supporting the UPA candidate. 

The bon homie in the UPA is a new phenomenon. It was in deficit during the search for presidential candidates. Nitish Kumar went out of his way to welcome NDA’s choice of Ram Nath Kovind, the Governor of Bihar. But the Modi-Shah-Jaitley team appeared to be uneasy right from the beginning. It made a big show of Kovind’s filing of nomination, dragging the old drop-outs L. K. Advani and M. M. Joshi into the gathering. The fact that Shiv Sena, an ally, failed to turn up at the show has remained a source of worry. And a new worry is caused by the opposition’s recent show of unity. The seriousness with which its leaders are treating the presidential and vice-presidential election is evident from Mamata Banerjee’s recent order to her party MPs and MLAs that they must cast their votes in Kolkata instead of Delhi; it is obvious that the leader has limited trust in her legislators and is unwilling to take a chance with their votes in a secret ballot system. 

In fact much of BJP’s present headache, and the opposition’s hope, originates from the secret ballot system used for electing President and Vice-President. These two elections, as well as election to the Council of States, are held “in accordance with the system of proportional representation by means of the single transferable vote” as mandated in Articles 55(3) and 66(1) of the Constitution. However, in 2003, Parliament amended the Representation of the People Act to introduce the open ballot system in place of secret ballot for election to the Upper House, the underlying idea being that secret ballot could lead to cross-voting and corruption. But the Supreme Court, in a 2006 judgment, supported open ballot for Upper House elections but stated that the election of President and Vice President would be through secret ballot. 

Voting will therefore be according to members’ conscience and not along party lines. In 1969, Indira Gandhi used this constitutional crack in the door of party politics to defeat the Congress’ official candidate Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy and lead her ‘personal’ candidate, V. V. Giri, past the winning post. 

But why do UPA strategists hope that MPs and MLAs belonging to the NDA may switch their loyalties? Obviously, they do not have much hope about an upset in the President election. But the choice of Gopal Krishna Gandhi as VP may have brought a new dimension into India’s political realities. The UPA & its allies believe that in the three years the BJP government has challenged the country’s commitment to the idea of a tolerant India by ceaselessly interfering with lifestyle, food habit and even self-esteem of minority communities. The opposition believes that not every lawmaker in the NDA is happy about the partisan twist given to governance. Nor are they comfortable with an over-centralized administration in which decisions are taken behind closed doors, with little discussion and no debate. It was also surprising that Modi kept the name of NDA's VP candidate until almost the last day. On the other hand, Amit Shah is working hard to ensure that NDA's VP candidate gets 550 votes and wants to break the Opposition unity. The outcome is a foregone conclusion. But the die for the 2019 general election has been cast. 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

Tags assigned to this article:
presidential elections Vice President politics

Harish Gupta

The author is National Editor, Lokmat group

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