The President is the benign head of government constitutionally mandated to sign on the decisions of the council of ministers headed by the Prime Minister. Exaltation is stitched to the post by making him the symbolic supreme commander of the armed forces.
What makes presidential elections interesting and no holds barred is the fact that the anti-defection law does not apply. No party can issue a whip to compel its MPs and MLAs to vote for a particular candidate.
On paper, it makes MPs and MLAs cast conscience votes to elect the first citizen of the country. In reality, it permits political parties to encourage cross voting. That is why so much political muck flows beneath the sanctified exercise to elect the head of state.
From Rajendra Prasad, the first President, to Pranab Mukherjee, every presidential poll has been challenged in the Supreme Court, except two - those electing S Radhakrishnan and Pratibha Patil.
A presidential election can be challenged only in the SC, which sets up a bench of five judges to hear such petitions. In the first presidential election, Rajendra Prasad defeated Prof K T Shah by garnering 83% of the total vote value. An alumnus of London School of Economics and a prolific contributor to the Constituent Assembly debates, Prof Shah was too dignified to challenge Prasad's election in the SC.
In 1957, Prasad secured a second term by getting 99% of the vote value. But one 'intending candidate', Dr N B Khare, challenged Prasad's election and alleged that it was improperly conducted.
The SC threw it out [Dr N B Khare vs EC - 1958 AIR 139] without even going into the merits of the allegations. By the time Dr Zakir Hussain was elected the third President of India, the political landscape had undergone a dramatic change. One Babu Rao Patel challenged Hussain's election in the SC [1968 AIR 904].
Patel alleged that the conscience vote mandated to be cast by MPs and MLAs under the Presidential and Vice-Presidential Elections Act, 1952, was violated because of 'undue influence' exerted by the PM and cabinet ministers who openly canvassed and pressurised elected representatives to vote for Hussain.
The SC threw out the petition and said, "Any voluntary action which interferes with or attempts to interfere with the free exercise of electoral right would amount to undue influence. It cannot take in mere canvassing in favour of a candidate at an election. If that were so, it would be impossible to run democratic elections. It is difficult to lay down in general terms where mere canvassing ends and interference or attempt at interference to with the free exercise of any electoral right begins."
Wish the SC had decided what would constitute 'undue influence', for the word came back to haunt the presidential elections in petitions filed in the SC later. The very next presidential election, warranted by Hussain's sudden death in 1969, witnessed murky political manoeuvring by then PM Indira Gandhi and her aides.
Against Gandhi's wishes, Congress chose N Sanjiva Reddy as the official candidate. She responded by putting up then Vice-President V V Giri as the challenger and made it known that he had her blessings.
One Shiv Kirpal Singh challenged Giri's election and the SC in its judgment [1970 AIR 2097] recorded his allegations thus, "Supporters of the returned candidate — Indira Gandhi, Jagjivan Ram, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, Yunus Saleem, Karan Singh, Dinesh Singh, Swaran Singh, I K Gujral, Satya Narain Sinha, K K Shah and Triguna Sen -- were all occupying high ministerial positions in the central government and they misused these positions for furthering the prospects of the returned candidate."
This remains the only time when evidence was led by parties in the SC in a presidential election petition and Giri was asked to answer it.
The SC brushed aside the evidence of 'undue influence' and termed it mere canvassing. It ruled that the evidence was insufficient to hold it as misuse of official machinery.
Apart from this, a pamphlet carrying scurrilous and vulgar allegations against Sanjiva Reddy was openly distributed in the Central Hall of Parliament alleging that if Reddy got elected as President, then Rashtrapati Bhavan would be converted into a "harem" and that he would destroy democracy through his dictatorial methods.
This too was discarded by the SC. It said though the pamphlet could possibly have influenced the minds of voters, the petitioner could not establish either the 'connivance' or 'consent' of Giri in the printing and circulation of the pamphlet.
Presidential polls changed course with Giri's election. The elections of the next three Presidents - Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, N Sanjiva Reddy and Giani Zail Singh --were unsuccessfully challenged by advocate Charan Lal Sahu, who was never a serious candidate.
Sahu had also challenged the elections of K R Narayanan and A P J Abdul Kalam, only to invite the SC's ire and warning. One Mithilesh Kumar Sinha had challenged the elections of Shankar Dayal Sharma and R Venkataraman.
A serious challenge to the election of Zail Singh, who had infamously said he would have unhesitatingly picked up the broom if Indira Gandhi had told him so, came from 27 MPs from Lok Dal, Democratic Socialist Party of India, BJP and Janata Party, which had fielded Justice H R Khanna as their candidate. They had questioned Singh's suitability as President.
Interestingly, ex-CJI M H Beg, who had sided with the SC's majority judgment in 1976 upholding suspension of fundamental rights during Emergency and had become chairman of Minorities Commission in 1982, critically questioned Justice Khanna's suitability as President by pointing out the infirmities in Justice Khanna's dissenting judgment in the ADM Jabalpur case. The MPs alleged massive misuse of official machinery by the government in getting Singh elected as the seventh President.
The SC dismissed the MPs' petition [1984 (1) SCC 390] and said, "Suitability of a candidate is for the electorate to judge and not for the court to decide. Suitability is a fluid concept of uncertain import. The ballot box is, or has to be assumed to be, its sole judge." Since then, the suitability of a person for the President's post has indeed remained a fluid concept.