Mr Congress System
PRESIDENT PRANAB: OLD WINE AGES BETTER
By Poonam I Kaushish
New Delhi, July 24 : The old gives way to the new on Raisina Hill. Meet the thirteenth President of India Pranab Mukherjee. A welcome change indeed!
How should one describe him? Mr Congress System who rose from Rajya Sabha’s last bench to Number 2, from Prime Minister Indira Gandhi Cabinet in 1973 till last month as erstwhile Union Finance Minister, making policy, fire-fighting and striking deals. Pranabda as he is affectionately called by colleagues or simply Poltu his pet name, who made it to the magnificent Rashtrapati Bhawan. Vintage wine, getting better with each passing year!
A path-breaking journey for a teacher’s son from a West Bengal’s Mirati village, who taught before entering politics. Exuding humility, sharp intellect and encyclopedic memory which enabled him to win friends and influence politicians across the political spectrum over the years. None know how India’s Government functions at the micro level better than him.
Readers are justified in wondering why I am ‘boring or burdening’ them with Mukherjee instead of chat-patta political torh-marorh of the latest NCP’s Sharad Pawar’s antics. Normally, a new President does not evoke much public attention. Thanks to the perception that the Head of State is merely the Government’s “rubber stamp and stooge”. Proved true time and again.
However, call it destiny or a conspiracy of political circumstances, Mukherjee’s ascendancy to the Presidency was preceded by high drama, courtesy fellow Bengali and capricious Trinimool’s Chief Mamata Bannerjee-Mulayam suggesting three alternates, Samajwadi’s U-turn and Mamata coming around.
Arguably, given the political turbulence with NCP’s Sharad Pawar now flexing his muscles, a fractured polity resulting in Parliament often being deadlocked over issues it falls on President Mukherjee’s shoulders to steer his Council of Ministers out of the mess. Add to this, no clear winner expected in 2014 elections in 2014, his negotiating skills and wisdom will be put to test to anoint a Prime Minister and steer the ship of the State.
Pertinently, contrary to popular perception, the President is “not a ceremonial head, a rubber stamp or a glorified cipher”. As Head of State he has a bigger role to play than hereditary monarchs. He has certain reserve discretionary powers which flow from the oath of office whereunder he undertakes to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution” to the best of his ability in the service and well being of the people of the India. Also, like the British monarch, he has “the right to be consulted, the right to warn and the right to encourage”.
However, as 2012 is not the India of 1947 wherein democracy has degenerated into a feudal power brokers’ oligarchy riven with communalism, casteism and corruption, together with the collapse of the system, the President’s role has become critical, if the nation is not to be hijacked from its democratic and Constitutional path.
Mukherjee would be well advised to read the “unpublished speech” of India’s First President Rajendra Prasad at the inauguration of the Indian Law Institute on 28 November 1960. Rajen Babu, as he was popularly called, questioned the tendency to equate the President’s Constitutional position with that of the British monarch and suggested an investigative study of the powers and functions of the President by legal and constitutional experts.
He observed: “The Head of the State in the British Constitution is a Monarch and the Crown descends according to the rules of heredity. In India, the Head of the State is an elected President who holds office for a term and can be removed for misconduct in accordance with the procedure laid down in the Constitution.” He also questioned the tendency to believe that like the British sovereign, the Indian President was also a Constitutional Head and had to act according to the advice of his Council of Ministers.
Said he, “The executive power of the Union is vested in the President and shall be exercised by him either directly or through officers subordinate to him in accordance with the Constitution. The Supreme Command of the Defence forces of the Union is also vested in him and the exercise thereof shall be regulated by law… there were also articles which laid down “specific duties and functions of the President….”
In fact, Prasad, who had earlier presided over the Constituent Assembly, took up the issue of the President’s powers with Nehru in 1950 soon after moving into Rashtrapati Bhavan. Nehru referred these points to the then Attorney-General, M.C. Setalvad, and the latter opined that the President could dismiss a ministry and order fresh elections on his own discretion which could be exercised as a reserve power if the President felt strongly that Parliament did not reflect the political balance in the country. (Nine State Assemblies were dissolved in 1977 by the Janata Government following the Lok Sabha poll earlier that year in exercise of this power).
Much has happened since the first President put forward his view. Originally, there was no provision in the Constitution which laid down that “the President shall be bound to act in accordance with the advice of his Council of Ministers”. But Indira Gandhi ill-advisedly rushed in with the Constitution 42nd Amendment: There shall be a Council of Ministers with the Prime Minister at the head to aid and advise the President who shall, in the exercise of his functions, act in accordance with such advice.” Thus, tying-up the President hand and foot.
Subsequently, the Constitution 44th Amendment clarified that the President was not tied hand and foot and that he can “require the Council of Ministers to reconsider such advice either generally or otherwise.” But this power is not unlimited. The amendment, introduced by the Janata Government, provides that the “President shall act in accordance with the advice tendered after such re-consideration.”
Importantly, most experts agree with Rajen Babu that the President has certain reserve, discretionary powers which flow from the oath of his office which is as follows: “I will faithfully execute the office of President and will to the best of my ability preserve, protect and defend the Constitution….” The President also has the “right to be consulted, the right to warn and the right to encourage.”
Notably, he has another power which, has seldom been exercised. The power to question and the right to information. Among other things, he could always exercise his judgment and ask for any decision to be reconsidered by the Government Constitutionally, he could even go to Parliament and also seek the opinion of the Supreme Court on any issue of basic importance.
In sum, in these vexatious political times, Mukherjee, will have to give all it takes to balance the ever-growing inherent contradictions within our polity. Address basic questions vital to the healthy growth of India’s democracy. He has a moral duty to perform when decisions are not taken in the interest of the people. Recall Abraham Lincoln’s famous quote: Public opinion is everything. With public sentiment nothing can fail. Without it, nothing can succeed. Consequently, he who moulds public opinion goes deeper than he who enacts statues or pronounces decision”—-INFA
(Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)