India to get first-ever Sikh president

India is about to get its first-ever Sikh president. With his July 12 election a foregone conclusion, Indian Home Minister Zail Singh will become the first of his 13 million coreligionists - who make up a small but influential religious minority -- to serve as India's head of state. His election will mean that India has a Gandhi loyalist in this symbolic post.

Mr. Singh's nomination by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and a host of her ruling Congress-I Party notables ensures his selection as independent India's seventh president in balloting among members of Parliament and state assemblies.

He will replace Neelam Sanjiva Reddy, whose five-year term expires July 25. Elected during the previous Janata government, Mr. Reddy has antagonized the Gandhi government with outspoken public criticisms of corruption and deteriorating political morality.

Known for their enterprise and readiness to try the new, Sikhs have spearheaded India's green revolution in their breadbasket state of Punjab and have long been the backbone of India's armed services. Sikhs profess a caste-free religion that broke away from Hinduism, the faith of India's majority , about 500 years ago. Because of their religious customs, orthodox Sikh men are identifiable around the world by their beards as well as their colorful turbans.

Recently, India's Sikh community has been split by bitter political infighting and by a small but vocal separatist bid for a Sikh nation styled as Khalistan. Mrs. Gandhi's choice of Mr. Singh over possible Hindu and Muslim candidates is seen as a timely move to dampen the community's political wrangling and defuse charges of discrimination against Sikhs in national life.

As president and head of state, Singh will occupy a largely ceremonial office that constitutionally requires him to follow the advice of the government executive -- the prime minister and council of ministers. But the presidency takes on key decisionmaking powers in times of political instability. When a sitting government loses its majority in Parliament, the president gives the mandate for a fresh government to the group he thinks most likely to succeed.

Singh's tenure as home minister has been marked by controversy, including charges of interference in Punjab politics and too-frequent sightings of an unspecified ''foreign hand'' behind the domestic discontents that often erupt into violence in India.

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