Politics—President’s Office

By Prashant Tandon

Surely, Mr Mukherjee will go down in history as a President who did more than provide photo ops

We live in an age of social media and reality television. In this age every occurrence, however insignificant, banal or not-so-momentous, is first blown up to the level of an event. And then follows the onerous task of ensuring that every such occurrence, now a newly created media event, brings in requisite eyeballs, and gets more ‘likes’ and RTs. To ensure this, the thumb rule is, of course, to get as dramatic as one can.

Keeping pace with our get-eyeballs-at-any-cost-culture, politicians have also mastered the art of offering sound bytes-on-demand, and sometimes not even on demand. A so, what to me is not that much of an event such as the election of President of India, witnessed plenty of eyeball drama during its run-up, thanks to the clever hyping up it received across television screens and social media, politicians themselves engaged in the race.

Constitutionally, and officially, the President of India is the holder of the highest office in India. Unofficially, though, the position has for long been referred to as a Rubber Stamp.

Agreed, there has been a healthy buzz concerning whether we should at all get into the debate of dismantling or even damaging our long-standing and established institutions such as the office of the President of India. But sometime I wonder whose KRA (Key Responsibility Area) it is to protect this institution. Is it the responsibility of the common man or woman or the person who is sitting at the top of the institution? Can an ordinary citizen surrounded by problems of life, majority of which he has not created for himself, contribute to repair the institution which is damaged by the person sitting on the top of it with sickles in both hands?

Let’s examine how and when this glorified and highest office earned itself the not so complimentary sobriquet of Rubber Stamp. I can say under oath that I have not coined this sobriquet, neither did I contribute to its coining in any which way. I am more than sure that none of you reading this column has anything to do with this rather unfortunate, but age-old, insinuation made against our highest public office. My take is that this has been done by the very people who were sitting inside this 340+ room super structure called Rashtrpati Bhavan.

Let’s look at the Rubber Stamp episodes. In June 1975, President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed signed emergency papers and, thereby, allowed Indira Gandhi to rule by a decree—it was then that dignity of this high office was compromised. When Giani Zail Singh publicly expressed loyalty to his mentor Indira Gandhi and politicized matters, the institution lost a bit of its sheen. Also, after her assassination, when the inexperienced but charismatic Rajiv Gandhi was invited to rule the nation as Prime Minister, ahead of several other senior Congressmen, the precedence of appointing the senior most member of the cabinet as PM was not followed.

Dr Radhakrishnan twice appointed Gulzari Lal Nanda as Prime Minister after the death of Jawahar Lal Nehru and Lal Bahadur Shastri. (We do not have constitutional provision of interim or caretaker Prime Minister) On both occasions Nanda was senior most member of the cabinet. Zail Singh should have followed this president instead of putting political loyalties before his constitutional duty and dignity of office he was holding.

In more recent times when Sonia Gandhi stepped back and instead put forward Dr Manmohan Singh’s name as Prime Minister in 2004 there were whispers in political corridors that President APJ Adbul Kalam had some reservations on inviting Sonia Gandhi and sought clarification on her legal tenability owing to her foreign origin. There were TV debates, news papers stories and columns written on this. Some politicians even claimed to have a copy of a letter by President Kalam to the Congress President. Not once in eight years APJ Abdul Kalam made any attempt to clear the air until last month, when through his latest book Turning Points, he admitted that the letter to invite Sonia Gandhi to form was ready in Rashtrapati Bhawan and he had no other option but to invite her had she made a claim.

Kalam should have clarified this much earlier for the sake of dignity and institution of President house that there was no secret moves at Raisina Hills to subvert the choice of democratically elected MPs of single largest party.

Further to it after holding the office of President of India for 5 years and that too after commanding respect from all quarters APJ Abdul Kalam should not have shown interest in moving again into Rashtrapati Bhawan. He has done this twice which has lowered his as well as dignity of office as well.

I don’t recall any worth mentioning decision taken by present President Pratibha Patil towards fulfilling her Constitutional duties except her presence in ceremonials, routine affairs and few foreign visits. There was a practice that soon after any foreign visit, important cabinet decision and political event, Prime Minister used to brief President. Dr Manmohan Singh rarely follows this practice and outgoing President Pratibha Patil has never really insisted, even though she has every right under Article 78 of the Constitution for doing so. Rajiv Gandhi had also tried this but Giani Zail Singh—the then President forced him to pay visits to the Rashtrapati Bhavan.

We adopted Westminster model and replaced Constitutional Monarch of England with President. Now after six decades of adopting constitution nation should debate seriously that do we really need a decorative head of state that performs key duty of appointing prime minister once in five years. And rest of the time is seen in Mughal Gardens photo ops and Republic Day Parade. Simple task of appointing Prime Minister can be done by a collegium of Chief Justice of India, Chairman of Rajya Sabha and Speaker of previous Lok Sabha. Else we make office of President meaningful.

In fact entirely new approach is required vis-à-vis President office. The fear that an assertive President will create two centres of power is unfounded. The founders of our Constitution took care of that and at the same time have not conceived a lame duck President. It is not necessary that President always has to act on the advice of the Prime Minister. Article 53 (1) says “The Executive power of the Union shall be vested in the President and shall be exercised by him either directly or officers subordinate to him in accordance with this Constitution.”

There are many occasions when president has to act without advice of the cabinet like appointment of Prime Minister. Scope of this must be enlarged as President too gets elected by a large and pan-India Electoral College. He is accountable to Parliament which debates his address through motion of thanks and passes amendment in Presidential address and Parliament is empowered to dismiss President through impeachment. There are precedents that Presidents in past have returned cabinet advice for reconsideration, withheld a bill passed by Parliament and did not allow it to become a law. One example is the Postal Bill passed by Parliament during Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure but Giani Zail Singh did not sign it. That Bill is still there in Rashtrapati Bhavan shelves and could not become the law.

The Postal Bill as passed by Parliament then gave powers to state to read and block letters of any citizen on suspicion. This was draconian act and an open infringement of Constitutional guarantee of rights of individuals. Can anybody question the merit of Zail Singh’s decision to withhold that bill even after passed by Parliament with overwhelming majority?

Even Queen of England, a symbolic monarch, performs a far bigger role in governance. Every Tuesday evening Prime Minister of England goes to Buckingham Palace to brief matters of governance. In India we do not have such institutionalized practice.

It is the call of the day that President instead of a symbol of colonial royalty and decoration plays a definitive role in governance and intervene in national interest. As a custodian of Constitution it is prime duty of the President to ensure that government of the day does not violate rights of citizens and work towards betterment of masses instead of few individuals.

After plenty of heat, dust and accusations, and a last ditch effort by P.A. Sangma to upset his applecart, Pranab Mukherjee has entered Rashtrapati Bhavan. With his four-decade public life experience in many ministries and Parliamentary positions it is expected that Pranab Mukherjee will undo this Rubber Stamp image. It is expected that he will be a more hands on President, with his finger on the political button most of the time. He may play no direct role politically as a post-wielding party man, but few can deny that his will be a tenure when we may well witness the most proactive President of India of all time.

A workaholic Pranab Mukherjee I hope will find some more work in Rastrapati Bhavan other than a zillion photo ops. 

—The author is a Delhi based broadcast journalist and views expressed here are his own. 
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July 2012

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