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India's next president may have something new: political power

NEW DELHI -- Pratibha Patil wakes to the sound of trumpets and horse-backed riders in the cobbled courtyard of her magnificent palace in New Delhi, she walks on a treadmill, prays at her private temple and prepares for a long, hollow day.

That's how it has been for Patil and her 11 predecessors as president of India: a grand office and an opulent home with liveried attendants, but almost no power.

But that might change when Patil leaves office in July and a new president is elected for the next five years.

For the first time since India became independent 65 years ago, it may have a president with political clout.

That power will flow from a prerogative that effectively gives the president a casting vote when no one political party has a clear mandate to rule — the likely outcome of the next national elections due by 2014.

A politically driven president — and the leading contender for the job, current Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, is certainly that — could also take advantage of India's vaguely worded constitution to influence legislation in a parliament splintered by many parties and alliances.

He could also use his power to dissolve an impossibly fractured parliament, and delay or even scupper legislation by withholding the required presidential assent.

“The role of the president will be critical after the next general elections,” wrote M.J. Akbar, a former Congress party lawmaker, in the India Today weekly. “In theory, a president is above politics; in practice, he is what he chooses to be.”

'Hung Parliament' Ahead

The Indian constitution recognizes the president as head of state but stipulates that real executive power sits with the prime minister and his ministers. Where the president does have a say, however, is on the appointment of the prime minister.

Sonia Gandhi's Congress Party, which leads today's coalition government, has seen its popularity crumble after a run of corruption scandals and scant progress in taming inflation, while the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is riven by squabbling leaders and hardly more ready for an election.

Unless there is a radical change in the fortunes of one of these two national parties, the next general election should yield a 'hung parliament' and both will scramble to prove to the president that — with coalition partners — they command a majority of seats in parliament and therefore the right to rule.

Both might fail to cobble together required numbers for a parliamentary majority, leaving the way open for a fragile rainbow coalition — a so-called “Third Front” — to claim power.

The constitution is silent on who the president should appoint in such cases: the party with the most parliamentary seats or the alliance with the most credible claim that it has a workable coalition?

In effect, it may be down to the judgment — and perhaps political preference — of the president to name the prime minister.

Constitutional Ambiguity

Framed in 1949 after the Westminster model, India's constitution made the president a ceremonial head like the queen in Britain. However, the authors omitted to mention whether that model should be strictly followed, leaving it ambiguous.

“This is a role that has been governed by convention rather than norm,” said K.K. Venugopal, a constitutional expert.

The Supreme Court has ruled that the president is not a mere figurehead but a moral authority who may stay in touch with the prime minister on matters of national importance and policy.

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