The Indian presidency

Published : Jun 22, 2002 00:00 IST

Half a century's experiences with the institution of the presidency provide several lessons.

THE messy and protracted parleys within the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and between the regime it leads and the Opposition establish, disturbingly, that the country has not yet learnt the lessons which its fractured party system teaches time and again, namely, that the polity cannot function properly except on the basis of a national consensus. The NDA proposed two names, only to discard them. One was that of P.C. Alexander, a civil servant with a keen eye on the main chance and of flexible loyalties. The other was Krishan Kant, who stood up to his leader Indira Gandhi during the Emergency and has conducted himself with dignity all these years, as Governor of Andhra Pradesh and as Vice-President. The second name was agreed between a representative of the Opposition and one of the government. The latter called Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee for confirmation in the presence of the Opposition's representative. A few hours later, in deep embarrassment, he called his interlocutor to report that Vajpayee had been overruled. The die-hards in the Bharatiya Janata Party were determined to have their "own man".

This is the third time in a year that the Prime Minister has been humiliated thus by hardline colleagues; a cabal led by L.K. Advani and comprising two or more junior Ministers - in Agra in July 2001; on Narendra Modi's removal last March; and now on the candidate for the presidency. This is unprecedented. It reflects the state of the Prime Minister's Office. To use Norman Lamont's words, Vajpayee is in office, but he is not in power. The situation will get worse for him. The decline cannot be arrested.

The BJP's mindset was reflected in its choice of the Shiv Sena man, Manohar Joshi, as candidate for the Speaker's office. It has an eye on the vice-presidency and wishes to fill in every post it can possibly fill before the next Lok Sabha elections due in two years. That is precisely when it will need its "own man" in Rashtrapati Bhavan. It will enforce its will wherever and whenever it can. Once it has the numbers on its side, it disdains the forging of consensus with others. The political divide will get sharper and deeper in the days ahead.

It is no disrespect to its nominee A.P.J. Abdul Kalam to say that neither his talents nor experience equip him for the office. He can, of course, spring a surprise on everyone, a feat which is not unknown. The precedent of Dr. S. Radhakrishnan is inapt. As his utterances, private and public, and record in office established, he had politics in his blood; and by no means politics of the elevated kind either.

People have a wrong notion about having "a good man" in politics. Doubtless, integrity is indispensable. So, however, are knowledge and understanding of the political process. In a brilliant essay on The Decline of the Public Realm, Prof. Hans J. Morgenthau cited the men President Eisenhower selected to run his administration and pointed out some truths which are commonly overlooked to the peril of the public good. He bears quotation in extenso:

"Many selections have been excellent within the limits of the standards applied. But these excellent men have in all innocence done greater damage to the political life and the political interests of the nation than many of their less worthy predecessors; for they have brought to their public offices nothing but personal excellence - no understanding of political life, let alone ability to cope with the processes of politics.

"A good man who becomes an actor on the political scene without knowing anything about the rules of politics is like a good man who goes into business without knowing anything about it or who drives a car although ignorant of how to drive. Yet, while society recognises the need to protect itself against the latter, it feels no need for protection against the former. Indeed, the virtuous political dilettante has for it a well-nigh irresistible fascination. It is as though society were anxious to atone for the sacrifices of private virtue which the political sphere demands and to take out insurance against the moral risks of political action by identifying itself with political leaders who sacrifice the public good on the altar of their private virtue.

"Society has learned to take bad men in its stride and even to protect itself against those who know the rules of the political game only too well and use them to the detriment of society. Society will have to learn, if it wants to survive, that it needs protection also against good men who are too good even to take note of the rules of the political game".

THE Constitution requires of the President a certain blend of qualities. He must be neither a political illiterate nor a political professional who has run the party machine. He must have a clear understanding of the political process and yet be above its turmoils; unaffected by the dust and din of the clashes of men and policies. He is an umpire and umpires are supposed to know the rules of the game, appreciate the state of the field and have an impartial eye on the play.

The Constitution vests in the President certain discretionary powers which can decisively affect, for better or for worse, the course of politics for decades to come. This twilight zone of crucial importance is commonly overlooked in the simplistic debate on whether the President is a mere figurehead or a despot in waiting. He is neither. Dr. B.R. Ambedkar explained the correct position in the Constituent Assembly on December 30, 1948. "Under a parliamentary system of government, there are only two prerogatives which the King or the Head of the State may exercise. One is the appointment of the Prime Minister and the other is the dissolution of Parliament. With regard to the Prime Minister, it is not possible to avoid vesting the discretion in the President."

Mohammed Tahir asked: "On a point of order, how will it explain the position of the Governors and the Ministers of the State where discretionary powers have been allowed to be used by the Governors?"

Dr. B.R. Ambedkar replied: "The position of the Governor is exactly the same as the position of the President."

A hung Lok Sabha confronts the President with a problem he alone can resolve. The choice was not always wisely made. Shankar Dayal Sharma was most unwise in inviting Vajpayee to form a government on May 15, 1996 when he knew that not only did he not enjoy the support of the majority in the Lok Sabha but faced the active opposition of all other parties, save his own, in the House ("A President's lapse", Frontline, June 14, 1996). His prestige did not suffer because Vajpayee's ill-earned, but fully exploited, tenure lasted less than a fortnight and by then the President had acquired a formidable reputation, in contrast to immediate predecessors such as R. Venkataraman and Zail Singh. His bold expression of anguish on the demolition of the Babri Masjid, on December 6, 1992, was of a piece with his fine record. So was his public rebuke administered to Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, on the removal of Shiela Kaul from the office of Governor of Himachal Pradesh after the Supreme Court censured her on April 17, 1996 for improper allotment, as Urban Development Minister at the Union, of 43 shops in prime localities in New Delhi. The President issued a press release on April 20, just the day after the Prime Minister met him, announcing that "the President is yet to receive any advice of the Union Cabinet relating to the Governor of Himachal Pradesh".

Unfortunately, he did not issue any explanatory statement when he invited Vajpayee to become Prime Minister in 1996. This is President K.R. Narayanan's legacy to the office. He has set standards in public accountability which no successor can fail to fulfil.

He had no explaining to do when he invited H.D. Deve Gowda to form a government upon Vajpayee's resignation. Congress(I) president Sitaram Kesri withdrew his party's support and the Deve Gowda government was defeated in the Lok Sabha on April 11, 1997. I.K. Gujral was appointed Prime Minister only to meet the same fate as a result of Kesri's letter to the President withdrawing his support, on November 28, and staking a claim to form a Congress government. Gujral resigned.

President K.R. Narayanan's detailed 20-paragraph communique on December 4, 1997 set out why he declined to invite Kesri, and instead, dissolved the Lok Sabha with the Gujral government remaining as caretaker government. He also issued a full statement of reasons on March 15, 1998 for inviting Vajpayee to form a government. A long, cogently reasoned communique was issued by the Rashtrapati Bhavan on April 26, 1999, on the defeat of the Vajpayee government in the Lok Sabha on April 17. President Narayanan dissolved the Lok Sabha on the Cabinet's recommendation.

He earned Mulayam Singh Yadav's hostility for refusing to impose President's Rule in Uttar Pradesh and the BJP's ire for a similar refusal in respect of Bihar. Nor did his expressions of anguish and pain on the Staines' murders in January 1999 and the pogrom of Muslims in February-March this year endear him to the BJP. He knew he would have to pay the price for his integrity and independence and he did.

Together, two recent Presidents, Shankar Dayal Sharma and K.R. Narayanan, retrieved the presidency from the morass in which the likes of Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, N. Sanjiva Reddy, Zail Singh and R. Venkataraman had landed it. The BJP has no use for men like Sharma and Narayanan.

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