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Mainstream, VOL L, No 34, August 11, 2012

President for the People

His Role in Protecting Citizens’ Well-Being Hasn’t Received Due Attention

Friday 17 August 2012



On the 60th anniversary of Parliament, Pranab Mukherjee assumes office as the 13th President of the Republic. The Indian term for President—who, as head of the state, occupies an exalted place in the constitutional scheme of governance—is “Rashtrapati”.

The word has an interesting genesis in the Indian political context. During the freedom movement, the President of the Indian National Congress was respectfully addressed as Rashtrapati. Mahatma Gandhi, in many of his writings, refers to the communication he received from the Rashtrapati, meaning the President of the Congress party.

In the Constituent Assembly, the Union Constitution Committee submitted a report that had a draft Article which stated that “the Head of the Federation shall be the President (Rashtrapati)”. The report was partially adopted by the Assembly. However, later, the draft Article was changed by deleting the word “Rashtrapati”, and the amended Article read, “There shall be a President of India.” On December 10, 1948, H.V. Kamath, a member of the Constituent Assembly, asked B.R. Ambedkar why the word “Rashtrapati” was deleted. He wondered if it was removed to ensure that it would be exclusively used by the President of the Congress. Ambedkar explained that “Rashtrapati” was not used in the English text of the Constitution as the Hindi and Hindustani versions of it were being prepared separately.

The term “Rashtrapati” therefore draws much from the position enjoyed by the President of the Indian National Congress in the country during the freedom struggle. It commanded unequivocal honour and respect and was almost synonymous with the term head of the nation.

With India becoming a Republic and the assumption of the office of the President by Rajendra Prasad, a new era was heralded. The occupant of the highest office of the land is also the custodian of the Constitution. The oath administered to the President-elect is therefore quite different from that administered to the Prime Minister, Chief Ministers and the Ministers of the Union and States. While they owe their allegiance to the Constitution, the President takes the oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution. The President also promises to dedicate himself/herself to the service and well-being of the people.

WHILE the President’s function as the protector and defender of the Constitution has been adequately highlighted, the role played by the President to serve and promote the well-being of the people of India has not received much attention. Granville Austin, an American histo-rian who is an expert on the Indian Constitution, described it first and foremost as a social and economic document. In preserving and protecting it, the President has to protect the well-being of people—that is central to the working of the Constitution.

It was former President K.R. Narayanan who said that he had carefully read the oath taken by him and understood that it provided a wider scope to play the role of a working President, functioning within the boundaries of the Constitution, as opposed to an executive President. Observing that the office of the President gave little direct power or influence to the incumbent to interfere in matters or to affect the course of events, he added: “There is a subtle influence of the office of the President on the executive and the other arms of the government and on the public as a whole. It is a position which has to be used with a philosophy of indirect approach. There are one or two things which you can directly do in very critical times. But, otherwise this indirect influence that you can exercise on the affairs of the state is the most important role he can play. And, he can play it successfully only if he is, his ideas and his nature of functioning are seen by the public in tune with their standards… there must be some equation between the people and the President.”

The first President, Rajendra Prasad, under-stood that the people would expect a lot from an elected President. Therefore, he wrote with insight: “Whatever the strictly correct legal and constitutional position may be there is no doubt that in the case of an elected President people do look upon him also as a person having some authority in the governance of the country, and he can justify his position only by tendering such advice and giving such suggestions as he considers necessary to the Cabinet before it takes any decision. Once a decision has been taken, whether with or without his suggestions or even against his suggestions, he has to act according to that decision.”

In the era of coalition politics and government, the role of the President is of critical significance. The provisions of the Constitution coupled with the precedents set by the successive Presidents constitute the source of inspiration and guidance to the future Presidents of our country.

(Courtesy: The Indian Express)

The author, a Joint Secretary in the Rajya Sabha Secretariat, was OSD to President Narayanan.

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