Between the Lines: Presidency and Polity
Updated: Nov 5, 2020
As Indians, we tend to forget too easily that we wish to forget and relatedly, see the highest constitutional post as a mere titular head. My first question to you as a reader would be: who has served as the best President of India in your opinion? I'd be on the safer side to assume a considerable majority saying Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam. But that would be a popular perspective.
The “Working” President
Without delving into the history of our presidents, in terms of an objective constitutional parameter, K.R Narayanan, India's first Dalit President (1997-2002) would win. A retired IFS, he's regarded as an independent and assertive President who widened the scope of the highest constitutional office by describing himself as a “working President”, somewhere between an executive President and a rubber stamp, using his discretionary powers thereby deviating from convention and indulging in activism within the framework of the Constitution of India.
He set a formidable precedent in many complex situations including, but not limited to, wisely navigating his role by consulting all parties across the spectrum during the years of great political instability; returning the pieces of advice for the imposition of President rule in a state in two instances for reconsideration to the Union Cabinet by conveying his stance in passionate letters using data as his prime tool; asking Vajpayee to convene the Rajya Sabha singularly—as the Lok Sabha stood dissolved during the Kargil Confli—ctiting a 1962 request by Vajpayee to Nehru for the same; and constantly reminding the nation about the need for social & economic justice as well as communal harmony.
Indeed, Dr. Kalam also returned the Office of Profit bill for reconsideration to Dr. Manmohan Singh's cabinet and could be seen at universities amid students inspiring them to create a better India. One would've expected something similar from Pranab Mukherjee but his tenure was largely uneventful except in that he made the Rashtrapati Bhavan more accessible. He could be seen emphasizing diversity and dissent in his speeches continuously but he also signed orders of President's rule which were struck down by the Supreme Court (one on Republic Day!). By and large it was a happy family at the Centre with Dada & Modi's affectionate relationship helping it.
The Current Institutional & Political Malaise
Another question we focus on is whether the office of the President is still relevant. While the question in itself has good reasons to be raised, the answer is a firm ‘yes’. The position is bigger than the person occupying the post, has an international echo and a symbolic constitutional value for the Republic of India. But by way of the above examples, one cannot assert that no one expects the President to use independent discretion (unless you're referring to Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed!). From Dr. Rajendra Prasad to Giani Zail Singh to Dr. Kalam, all have left a mark in their own ways.
So why do we raise this question today? It is because of what we see. Every institution losing its garima, if you will: what our Governors are indulging in so brazenly; how our parliamentary system itself is signifying brute majoritarianism instead of consensus and constitutionalism; even the Election Commission and the Supreme Court becoming part of not-so-flattering news editorials every now and then. The context is different and especially worrying as there's a significant conversion of the Prime Minister’s executive and legislative powers. Moreover, every other day, prominent commentators are seen making a case for India to move towards a presidential or a semi-presidential system while others counter them in opinion pieces. Both make sense in their own ways.
As the former Governor of Bihar, Mr. Ram Nath Kovind serves as an ideal example for all the Governors of the day, some of whom have, far from responsibly discharging their duties, brought utter shame to this constitutional post. He was completely non-partisan and constitutionally masterful (he's been a lawyer), untempted to lock horns with an opposition-led government back then in Bihar and is remembered for his conduct in that small stint. When Ms. Meira Kumar—former Lok Sabha speaker and the daughter of former Deputy PM Jagjivan Ram—was nominated by the UPA as their presidential candidate in 2017 elections and the NDA fielded Mr. Kovind , there was a lot of chatter. Mr. Modi is known to do what is least expected. Some said that a BJP man in office is just what is needed, others said that there's not much space for Dalit leadership inside any of the main parties and so it is, as it was, purely symbolic. But it was incredible to see a Dalit first-generation politician-turned governor elected as the President. Some said it would send a strong message that the BJP wants the minorities to be empowered.
However, according to a report of the National Commission for Human Rights, every 18 minutes there's some form of crime committed against a Dalit in India and we have seen these only go up.
Of late, there have been a lot of dynamic happenings wherein several opposition delegations have called on the President and made their concerns known, be it regards the CAA, the recent Rajya Sabha showdown or human rights violations. You can dub it as whatever you wish—political posturing or exercising rights but it does tell us that there's an attempt in place to invoke constitutional morality by appealing to the conscience of the Rashtrapati Bhavan but there's hardly been any visible outreach.
I would blame the political malaise we suffer today in particular and not the system or the President in general. He could be seen hailing all government efforts while addressing the Central Hall as “my government's efforts towards a New India”, dubbing the contentious CAA as historic while quoting Gandhi.
But the most egregious abdication of responsibility by President Ram Nath Kovind so far has been the overnight lifting of the President’s rule in Maharashtra, to facilitate the secretive swearing-in of Devendra Fadnavis early in the morning amid the BJP-Shiv Sena stalemate, which really was...the lesser said about it, the better!
Had things been different—by which I don't mean any political confrontation but a constitutional approach—the naysayers saying that the BJP's man in office would ensure that every storm passes by, would have been proved wrong.
Moreover, in light of some recent developments when the sheer language of Indian politics has become so degrading—MPs coming out in indirect support for the rape accused in Hathras, selective outrage of women representatives making it look like something so routine that it's almost acceptable—we look for someone with basic decency. Tellingly, even the Rashtrapati Bhavan hasn't uttered a word on the case that shook India. The President's (who happens to be a Dalit himself) silence is deafening. No words for the victim or her family, let alone the condemnation of the cruel cover-up by the Uttar Pradesh police.
By Khushi Barman
Khushi Barman is a student of Humanities , fervently interested in the political history of India and the geopolitics of the subcontinent.