One does not remember a presidential election in India where the role of political parties has been so blatantly exposed to the public eye. The scrutiny of a candidate's credentials by the media is unprecedented. Public interest has also been fuelled by the hurdles faced by the Congress in carrying out an election process announced as having been won in advance.
Despite the large numerical superiority of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition in the Electoral College, the Congress supreme leadership has had the worst difficulties in imposing a candidate who would be both loyalist and acceptable to all. As a matter of fact, the choice of Pratibha Patil is the reflection of both internal tensions existing in the Congress party and the necessity of accommodating allies in the coalition.
During the Congress' halcyon days, the election of the president used to be on the whole an intra-party affair, which nonetheless did not prevent bitter fights and acrimony among political leaders. However, these clashes hardly echoed outside the precincts of Lutyen's city.
In the period that followed, much attention was paid by the party in power to propose a candidate who would be likely to obtain the consensus of the Electoral College, which often meant the assent of the Congress party. After K.R. Narayanan, the difficulty of finding a consensual political figure led to the election of a non-political person to Raisina Hill.
In today's scenario, the first striking element is that the parties forming the coalition have immediately ruled out the possibility of floating another non-political candidate. That is actually where troubles started arising, as finding a candidate who would meet the requirements enunciated by the same coalition partners, proved to be - if one may use an understatement - an arduous task. Congress stalwarts were ruled out either by partners or by the leadership of the Congress itself. On the other hand, no ally or opposition party could impose one of its members, due to their respective numerical weakness.
There were two main ways for the Congress to deal with such a multiplicity of players with diverging opinions and priorities. The first one consists of looking for the lowest common denominator among the players, which implies finding a candidate who cannot be identified with any specific party or ideology.
The other way lies in imposing a candidate who transcends these divisions either by virtue of his or her moral standing or by bearing a status that is unassailable. Clearly, the choice of Pratibha Patil falls in the latter category.
Congress leaders and UPA partners, the Left in particular, were cornered into expressing their support for a woman candidate. Furthermore, this nomination generated a spectacular division within the NDA with the Shiv Sena extending its support to the "Maharashtra ki beti".
At the other end of the political spectrum, the opposition was trapped into supporting a candidate unwanted by a majority of the College members and by its difficulties in holding sway over the ranks of the NDA. Moreover, the curious vacillation of the incumbent president and his duet with the NDA and third front parties did not help in consolidating the position of Bhairon Singh Shekhawat.
At the end of the day, it becomes clear that the exercise of electing the president has become more about proving the ability of the party in power to have its candidate elected than about finding a suitable candidate for the top post of the country. Pratibha Patil's anointment will be interpreted as a UPA victory against its (now) various opponents.
But, in the process, the difficulties faced by the Congress reveal the dilemma in which it remains stuck, as the party is clearly torn between logic of imposition inherited by its disposition to wish to rule single-handedly and the logic of consensus imposed by the necessities of coalition.
(The author is pursuing his PhD at the Political Studies Institute in Paris and is currently based in New Delhi. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)