Revisiting the debate on Presidential Elections in Constituent Assembly Debates
The Election Commission conducted the presidential election on 17th July, 2017. Article 54 of the Constitution of India, 1950 provides for the President to be elected by an electoral college consisting of “elected members of both the houses of parliament and the elected members of the Legislative Assemblies of the State”. Article 55 provides for the election of President through proportional representation using single transferable vote.
The mode of presidential election was debated in the Constituent Assembly. Shri Damodar Swarup Singh objected to the inclusion of legislative assemblies in the electoral college. He viewed the very existence of bicameral legislatures unnecessary in a democratic constitution.
K.T. Shah proposed an amendment on 10 December 1948 suggesting that the President be elected by “adult citizens” rather than through an indirect election. He stated that the President must be an actual sovereign representative of Indian citizens instead of being an ornamental functionary who is “a creature of party majority”. He also noted that election through adult franchise will insulate the office of President from the “vicissitudes of parliamentary fortunes” such as dissolution of legislative assembly. He criticized the election through proportional representation as it could lead to “a highly ambiguous majority” which is not representative in character.
Shri Hanumanthaiya opposed K.T.Shah’s proposal with 3 objections. First, “adult citizens” as worded in K.T.Shah’s amendment would include even citizens who are otherwise not entitled to vote at general elections. Second, election of a President through adult franchise is antithetical to the principle of parliamentary democracy as the government is conducted by elected representatives and not citizens themselves. Third, this would make the President a “party man” as he would indulge in active campaigning for the elections. Shri Hanumanthaiya concluded by stating that the position of the President in India is analogous to that of King of England, conferring him with real executive power would damage the structure of the Constitution.
Dr. B.R. Ambedkar laid down his disagreement on the impracticality of the proposal with 3 points. First, the size of electorate would make it an impossible task to conduct presidential elections through adult suffrage. Second, there would be several problems with the administrative machinery in conducting adult suffrage including insufficient non – official polling staff, bribery, corruption, election manipulation. This would compel the State to provide for the administrative support which is impractical. Third, since the President is “only a figurehead” without actual executive power, direct elections would be redundant.
Some argue that K.T. Shah’s failed proposal to shield the office of the President from partisan politics anticipated the future controversies that have erupted in the recent past and in the election of 2017. The argument is that the neutrality and bipartisanship of the Indian presidential elections, envisaged by the Constituent Assembly members, has morphed into an exercise in politicking.