Our Constitution spells out the oaths to be sworn by the President and Vice-President in Articles 60 and 69, and those for ministers are given in the Third Schedule. Except for a vow to “preserve, protect and defend” the Constitution, no symbols or ceremo
Narendra Modi won’t even get a sash. Through the election campaign he happily draped himself in different ritual shawls, donned different symbolic headgears (except one) and took part in different community ceremonies designed to show him in a commanding and victorious way. Yet now that he has triumphed the official moment to mark it, his formal swearing in by the President, will essentially be over in a minute. He will stand by the President’s side and read the oath of office and that will be it. In the past such inaugurations in India have featured protests and celebrations and lots of backroom drama and intrigue, yet the actual event has always been disappointingly plain. Mr. Modi will not be presented with anything like the gold chains of office of the Presidents of France and Russia. He will not have his predecessor hand over a sash patterned in national colours as is worn by Latin American presidents and quite a few in Africa (some wear both chain and sash). He will not have to wear the fine see-through shirt of pineapple fibre worn by the President of the Philippines (mercifully, with another shirt below). Mr Modi will not be given a ceremonial spear and shield like the President of Tanzania. He will not take the oath saluting a portrait of the founder of the Republic as the President of Taiwan does before a portrait of Sun YatSen. He does not have to hold or kiss a flag as do the Presidents of Hungary and Poland. Most swearing-ins involve a book, either the country’s Constitution or a relevant Holy Book. In Indonesia, the Koran is held over the President’s head as he takes the oath. Rituals like these were created as monarchies gave way to republics. Monarchs were crowned with elaborate rites to mark their embodiment of the state in both sacred and secular ways. Republics removed most of this, but still felt the need to give their titular head some visible mark of distinction. Since independence was usually won in battle they often adapted military regalia like the bandolier crossing the body from shoulder to hip which is the probable origin of the presidential sash. Republican movements, particularly in Latin America, were often anti-clerical, which is why they feature no religious element. But others allow space for religion, or have fully incorporated it. In Spain, the President swears with hand on the Constitution, but there is a bible and crucifix close by. Pakistan now requires officebearers to swear to being a Muslim and a believer in the Koran, in Muhammed being the last of the Prophets, in the Day of Judgement and all the teachings of the Koran and Sunnah.
None of this was deemed appropriate when secular and avowedly non-violent India first created its state institutions. Our Constitution spells out the oaths to be sworn by the President and VicePresident in Articles 60 and 69, and those for ministers are given in the Third Schedule. But the words are very simple, with just a vow to “preserve, protect and defend” the Constitution and to be devoted to the “service and wellbeing of the people of India”. No symbols or ceremonies are required beyond that.
The one choice that the Constitution allows is for the person being sworn in to invoke God or simply “solemnly affirm”. In the Constituent Assembly this was a matter some of the more excitable members, like HV Kamath made much of and reading the debates one gets a sense of the irritation felt by some of the leading members, like Jawaharlal Nehru and BR Ambedkar, at the time being wasted on what they clearly felt was an unimportant, even divisive, issue.
But the matter did allow for an entertaining moment when Sardar
IN PAKISTAN Office-bearers need to swear to being a Muslim, a believer in the Koran and in Muhammed being the last of the Prophets
Bhopinder Singh Mann countered Mr Kamath’s insistence on putting God in the oath by asking if any steps had been taken “to ascertain the wishes of God Himself on such a vital matter”. Mr Mann said he was not opposed to the idea of God, but worried that such facile use of His name could be demeaning. He also wondered what God might think of it all, which was why He should be asked. “Tomorrow, the whole labour will be lost if He withdraws his consent and refuse to be associated with your Constitution,” warned Mr Mann.
No such consultation seems to have been made and God’s view of the Indian Constitution and the use of His name in it remains unknown. Both options were retained and Modi will probably swear in God’s name. It is simply a matter of caution. Pupul Jayakar, in her biography of Indira Gandhi writes that when she first took office in 1966 she chose to affirm, but by the time of her last oath in 1980 she opted for God: “Indira was no longer a rebel against superstition and tradition; in the past she would have defied the stars, but now she was wary, pre- ferred to tread with caution.” Another reason Mr Modi’s options for inaugural rites are limited is because he is Head of Government but not Head of State. This again was much discussed in the Constituent Assembly in the context of whether to elect the Head of State, the President, by universal franchise. But a fairly clear consensus existed to follow the British model of a symbolic Head of State who would grant the real power to a Head of Government, the Prime Minister, elected via the Parliamentary system. In the British system, this granting of powers is given symbolic form by the PM “kissing the hand” of the monarch in grateful acknowledgement of the gift of power. This has probably been made easier in the last six decades by the monarch being a Queen and the prime ministers mostly men. What Margaret Thatcher did has never been revealed, but it is worth noting that Buckingham Palace now says that actual kissing is not required. But some PMs still attempt it, though not always successfully. Cherie Blair has revealed that when her husband Tony first did it he “stumbled over the carpet, and so ended up sort of warmly embracing the queen’s hand in a way that he wasn’t supposed to do.” Whatever their wishes for inaugural ceremonies might be, both Prime Ministerelect Modi and President Pranab Mukherjee must be profoundly relieved that this was one British convention we did not retain.