This is the time when one presidency is ending, and the nation is in the “throes” of selecting its next titular head — the person designated to “neither reign nor rule”. President Pratibha Patil was elected five years ago, not on the basis of “most acceptable to most”, but on the criterion “least unacceptable” — a clear recipe for mediocrity. Five years have proved this prognosis to be valid. The conventional wisdom is that the President is supposed to do “nothing” — but she needed to do that with dignity, elegance and grace. The nation has informally voted the present incumbent to be a failure, even on this unchallenging platform. To aspire for a post-retirement mansion rivaling the Rashtrapati Bhavan (which, probably with some justification, many consider an anachronistic colonial extravagance), beating all previous records for opulent foreign travel and such other exhibitions have not exactly endeared the present incumbent to the people of India. Perhaps the best way to remember her tenure is to forget it.
This is the time to reflect whether the President ought to be a mere figure-head or does he have a role? Whereas the powers of the President have not been explicitly defined in the Constitution, the tradition and experience of 60 years is that the President is merely a titular head and has no effective role to perform in the process of governance. Indeed, the first President, Dr Rajendra Prasad, tried initially to assert himself, but was thwarted early; S Radhakrishnan tried the same, with the same result. Neelam Sanjiva Reddy after the Emergency, showed some degree of independence; Giani Zail Singh appeared to have ‘fallen out’ with the then Prime Minister, and appeared to threaten to take an independent line, but in the end it all came to nothing. In short, none of our Presidents have indeed contributed anything significant to our constitutional history; arguably perhaps none utilised the potential opportunities provided by the wording of the Constitution, as circumstances presented themselves.
There are many unexplored areas where the President can possibly make his presence felt. The failure of the current governing class is palpably evident. That the Supreme Court has to exert itself to seemingly enter executive space, ostensibly in pursuance of defending some articles of the Constitution, is a clear sign that our Constitution has built-in safeguards to handle failure of one of its wings. Our Parliament in general has been ineffective and irrelevant for over 60 years, yet the slack has been taken up by the executive. The chief election commissioner earlier, and the CAG have started playing a significant role in our polity. Clearly, there is an important role for the President to play—he has to locate it.
The President could return a controversial Bill for re-examination, thus indirectly, and delicately, expressing a point of view. On major policy areas such as the Lokpal, where the national mood is contrary to the interest of the political class, the President could indicate his interpretation without a formal statement. The most recent official reports talk of over 60 per cent poverty levels in most states of India — a catastrophic failure of governance since Independence. One-third of the country is under Naxalism, and the count is increasing — one could go on. Surely, the Constitution carries enough openings to allow the President to speak out, most gently but effectively, to give a channel to public outrage at failing public standards. These are unexplored areas where the President could, indeed ought to, come into his own.
While a ‘financial emergency’ situation has been envisaged in the Constitution, the possibility of a fractured verdict in General Elections leading up to splinter groups emerging, unable to form a potentially stable government even through coalition, has not been reckoned at the Centre. It is not unlikely that such a situation may happen; Murphy’s law could indeed manifest itself. This is uncharted territory, as of now. If such a situation arises, the President will surely have to play an active role of intervention, and help find an appropriate safe path for the country. This may indeed happen sooner than later; it is a moot question if at that time, the President will behave like the prisoner of a political party or as a genuine Head of the State.
APJ Abdul Kalam was the first non-political President. His personal conduct as President, and post-retirement, has been exemplary—he rightly reflected the national mood through his personality. As the first “non-political” President, the expectation was high that he would stand firm on many issues, and would reflect the public mood against misgovernance when the opportunity arose. Alas, this did not happen; the system absorbed him — he was a glaring failure, however likeable his personality and endearing his demeanour. If the next appointee is a “political” person, there is the danger that he may not be able to rise above partisan politics, much like governors perform in the states nowadays. Whoever is the next incumbent, there is now space created for a President who can rise above politics, and “stand up and be counted”. The nation is in dire need of a ‘great’ President.
E-mail the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own