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Mainstream, Vol XLV, No 33

Raisina Hill’s New Tenant

From N.C.’s Writings

Wednesday 8 August 2007

By the time these lines reach the reader, India will be having a new President who, according to the Constitution, is due to hold office for five years, that is, beyond the present millennium. That the choice has been widely welcomed is borne out by the fact that all the major national parties supported Narayanan’s candidature, while the rumbustious who contested him lost his deposit. One has to thank God for that because most of what Seshan has handled so far has ended up in inane controversy, and the country can ill afford to have a Head of State at the moment who specialises in creating controversies rather than smoothening them.

One of the Election Commissioners, perhaps absentmindedly, had suggested free voting—that is, without any party whip—in the presidential election. The question could have been discussed had it been raised in advance. However, the actual results of the election have clearly shown that Narayanan was way ahead of his rival in the fray, and that a ban on party whips in this particular election would have made no difference whatsoever in the ultimate results of the ballot box counting.

If there were good reasons why Seshan scored so poorly, there were equally good reasons why so many of the parliamentarians voted so enthusiastically for Narayanan, irrespective of the badge he was wearing or the colour of his political complexion. In a word, it can be said without any fear of contradiction that Narayanan has been the nation’s choice for the august post cutting across party barriers. This by itself is an important political feature of the present presidential election. At a time when most of the national political parties have been passing through acute strain in retaining their integrity—some even faced with the prospect of losing their identity—it is significant that in choosing the Head of State, the Members of Parliament—who constitute the electoral college for such a poll—have cut across party barriers to choose one who has been widely known for his outlook and views and yet has kept himself out of petty political positions which divide more than unite the country at today’s critical juncture.
From this point of view, Narayanan’s victory is invested with an importance which can hardly be ignored. It means that despite the frightening fragmentation in political parties and the dwindling attachment to principles and values in politics today, there is an overwhelmingly large number of people in the public life of this country who cherish moral values that are emphatically proclaimed by the election of K.R. Narayanan as the President of India. His election is a repudiation of petty politics and seeks out a wider national vista.

By our Constitution, the President does not lead the government, but he does have the right in his personal capacity to express his views to the Prime Minister and hold on to them irrespective of the stand of the government. This is made clear by the record of the last five decades. Our first President held strong views on social and economic issues which hardly tallied with those of the government of the day. There were frank, and sometimes tense, exchanges on these issues between the President and the Prime Minister. There were items of personal difference between the two in the subsequent years, but as the Constitution enjoined it the Prime Minister’s views prevailed as those of the government. However, despite this disability, there is no doubt that the President’s personal views on occasions did carry weight. Indira Gandhi, as the leader of the Congress, was found to be short-sighted in choosing yes-men for the office of the President. It is yet to be assessed if she did the right thing in choosing a copycat President in the critical time of the Emergency, or by selecting a thoroughly partisan one which led to the disastrous policy of the Bluestar and ultimately to the tragedy of her own assassination. There are good reasons to speculate that had there been other personalities then occupying the seat of the Head of State, perhaps the Prime Minister at the time might have been personally persuaded to desist from the disasters in which she landed herself and the country at those crucial moments.

It is not that the office of the President does not think or is divested of any authority. An alert and sagacious President can certainly leave an impact on the government of the day. Had there been a different way of thinking in the Rashtrapati Bhavan in 1975, it is doubtful if the Emergency had been imposed at all. The total disarray in government thinking in 1984 led to the Bluestar, a catastrophe from which it would take long to recover. One of the reasons why such speculations are warranted today is that the government over which the Prime Minister presided in 1975 and 1984 could not really be called genuinely Cabinet, but that of an individual ensconced in a ring of unscrupulous coteries. That was precisely why a presidential advice, even if personally conveyed, might have had a really chastening effect.

Leaving aside speculation, one has to take into account the fact that the constitutional vagaries might create a situation when the President has to take his own decision without the benefit of any prime ministerial advice. This happened under President Venkataraman when he had to decide on his own that in the absence of any party getting the majority in the Lok Sabha, the one with the largest strength in the House should be called to form the government and try to prove his majority in the Lok Sabha. President Venkataraman, in fact, added a valuable precedent which his successor, President Shankar Dayal Sharma, could follow without question.

K.R. Narayanan becomes the Rashtrapati at a very critical time for Indian democracy as structured by the Constitution of India. Not only is there the question of any party lacking majority in the Lok Sabha, the prospect of new forms of tension between the Centre and the States, the dissonance over Article 356, the inability to sort out the river water disputes—these and many other issues may find the government of the day in a confused state and the President through his understanding and integrity may help to bring a solution. Even a case as created by Laloo Prasad Yadav could ensure a constitutional crisis in which the President would have to play his part with wisdom and sagacity that may help to bring about a solution which will enrich the very Constitution itself.

As the imposing red-sandstone building on the Raisina Hill welcomes a new occupant, fortified by the Constitution of India, distant drums of discord shall call for all the wisdom and strength to help the elected representatives do their part. In a country as vast and diverse, in which corruption has come up like canker in public life, a country which has yet to combat poverty for the millions that inhabit its earth—for such a country there should never be a person at the helm who could be just a bystander. The crisis itself demands a new form of moral activism. That is the mandate with which K.R. Narayanan assumes the new office, the most momentous in his active public life.
(Mainstream, July 26, 1997)

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