What is In­dia’s pres­i­dent ac­tu­ally for?

Many pres­i­dents chal­lenged the no­tion that the po­si­tion is mere cer­e­mo­nial

Muscat Daily - - FRONT PAGE - Soutik Biswas

Does the In­dian pres­i­dent serve a purely cer­e­mo­nial role? Is this a mere fig­ure­head who, in the words of former prime min­is­ter Jawa­har­lal Nehru, is a ‘head that nei­ther reigns nor gov­erns’, and holds a po­si­tion of ‘au­thor­ity or dig­nity’ more than any­thing else?

Last month’s elec­tion of Ram Nath Kovind as the repub­lic’s 14th pres­i­dent reignited the de­bate. In his in­au­gu­ral speech, Pres­i­dent Kovind, a former spokesman for the rul­ing BJP, promised cit­i­zens he would ‘stay true to the trust that they have be­stowed me’.

So do In­di­ans need an as­sertive or pli­ant pres­i­dent? Should they be merely a tit­u­lar head? Are In­dian pres­i­dents mere ‘rub­ber stamps’? And what hap­pens when the pres­i­dent acts in an as­sertive and/or par­ti­san man­ner?

The In­dian pres­i­dency dif­fers from most pres­i­den­cies across the world. The pres­i­dent does not ex­er­cise ex­ec­u­tive pow­ers - he is the head of the state, and is re­quired by the Con­sti­tu­tion to act on the ad­vice of min­is­ters.

So the role is more akin to that of the Bri­tish monarch or monar­chs in coun­tries like the Nether­lands or Spain: A ref­eree over a par­lia­men­tary sys­tem where min­is­ters pos­sess the real power. Coun­tries like Ger­many and Is­rael have pres­i­den­cies sim­i­lar to In­dia’s.

But James Manor, a pro­fes­sor at the Lon­don-based In­sti­tute of Com­mon­wealth Stud­ies who has ex­ten­sively re­searched the pres­i­dency, says In­dian pres­i­dents are ‘not en­tirely rub­ber stamps’.

They can ask min­is­ters to re­con­sider ac­tions, of­fer them pri­vate ad­vice and con­vey warn­ings. They also make pub­lic speeches which in­di­cate, at least sub­tly, ‘some dif­fer­ences of view

with the gov­ern­ment, and which may swing pub­lic opin­ion’.

Also, more im­por­tantly, af­ter elec­tions, pres­i­dents are free to act - and must act - with­out the ad­vice of min­is­ters if no party has been able to gar­ner a par­lia­men­tary ma­jor­ity. They also have some free­dom to de­cide whether to ac­cept a prime min­is­ter’s re­quest for dis­solv­ing the par­lia­ment to en­able a gen­eral elec­tion.

In­dia’s first pres­i­dent, Ra­jen­dra Prasad, fre­quently dis­agreed with prime min­is­ter Nehru and some­times sub­tly crit­i­cised the gov­ern­ment in his pub­lic state­ments.

In what many be­lieve was a shame­ful low for the pres­i­dency, the fifth pres­i­dent, Fakhrud­din Ali Ahmed, read­ily ac­qui­esced to former prime min­is­ter Indira Gandhi’s de­mand for a dec­la­ra­tion to im­pose a state of emer­gency - when civil lib­er­ties were sus­pended - in 1975.

Stormy re­la­tion­ship

The seventh pres­i­dent, Giani Zail Singh, - a former Congress gov­ern­ment home min­is­ter who once told the par­lia­ment that he

ad­mired Adolf Hitler - had a stormy re­la­tion­ship with the then prime min­is­ter Rajiv Gandhi.

In 1987, he with­held as­sent from a con­tro­ver­sial bill passed by the par­lia­ment. (The bill was later with­drawn.)

There were re­ports that Singh, who died in 1994 , had even con­sid­ered sack­ing Gandhi’s gov­ern- ment over an arms pur­chas­ing scan­dal.

The ninth in­cum­bent Shankar Dayal Sharma re­turned two ex­ec­u­tive or­ders to the Cab­i­net in 1996 be­cause they had been ‘in­ap­pro­pri­ately’ is­sued be­fore a gen­eral elec­tion.

And his suc­ces­sor, K R Narayanan, a Lon­don School of

Eco­nom­ics-ed­u­cated former diplo­mat and Dalit (for­merly known as ‘un­touch­able’), was ar­guably one of In­dia’s most as­sertive pres­i­dents. He de­liv­ered speeches which many be­lieved were not vet­ted by the gov­ern­ment and, in a sur­pris­ing break from pro­to­col, even gave an in­ter­view to a se­nior jour­nal­ist.

Narayanan also sent back a pro­posal to im­pose di­rect rule in the north­ern state of Ut­tar Pradesh to the Cab­i­net, ask­ing the min­is­ters to re­con­sider it.

He bluntly said, “I am not a rub­ber stamp.”

And he an­gered many in the gov­ern­ment and the me­dia for chid­ing vis­it­ing US Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton at a state ban­quet, pro­vok­ing the New York Times to com­ment that ‘the ten­sions in­her­ent in forg­ing an In­dian-Amer­i­can friend­ship sur­faced with Mr Narayanan’s speech’.

His suc­ces­sor APJKa lam, one of the most pop­u­lar In­dian pres­i­dents, was more re­strained, once re­turn­ing an of­fice of profit bill for re­con­sid­er­a­tion. The par­lia­ment re­turned the bill to him with­out changes, and he signed it into law.

‘More as­sertive’

Pro­fes­sor Manor be­lieves Kovind’s pre­de­ces­sor, Pranab Mukher­jee, a veteran Congress party leader and a former se­nior min­is­ter, was ‘more as­sertive than nearly all pre­vi­ous pres­i­dents’.

Although he re­jected a record 28 mercy pleas of death row con­victs dur­ing his ten­ure, Mukher­jee de­fied the ad­vice of the gov­ern­ment and com­muted the death sen­tences of four con­victs in Jan­uary.

“Mukher­jee had the right to re­fer those cases back to min­is­ters for re­con­sid­er­a­tion once, but when they re­it­er­ated the ad­vice, he is re­quired to ac­cept it. He re­fused to do so,” ex­plains Pro­fes­sor Manor.

“That was po­ten­tially ex­plo­sive po­lit­i­cally, and might have led to a con­sti­tu­tional cri­sis. But the prime min­is­ter and Cab­i­net ap­par­ently de­cided not to make an is­sue of it - be­cause Mukher­jee’s term was soon to end, and be­cause a con­fronta­tion would have pre­vented them from do­ing other im­por­tant things.”

Many fear that gov­ern­ments with over­whelm­ing ma­jori­ties - like the present BJP - could eas­ily lead to weak­en­ing of pres­i­dents.

That may not be en­tirely true. Rul­ing par­ties have en­joyed hefty ma­jori­ties for most of the pe­riod since 1947. “This alone has not led - un­der Congress or the BJP - to a weak­en­ing of the pres­i­dency. When a party or an al­liance has a Lok Sabha ma­jor­ity, the pres­i­dent is sup­posed to have very lim­ited pow­ers,” says Pro­fes­sor Manor.

“I am not a big fan of the [Naren­dra] Modi gov­ern­ment, but I don’t think [it] un­der­mined the of­fice when Mukher­jee was pres­i­dent. Now that they have a pres­i­dent with whom they are com­fort­able, they are un­likely to do so in the fu­ture.”

Pranab Mukher­jee was more as­sertive than nearly all pre­vi­ous pres­i­dents Prof James Manor


This file photo shows Ram Nath Kovind in­spect­ing the first guard of honour as In­dia’s 14th Pres­i­dent dur­ing his inau­gu­ra­tion cer­e­mony at Rashtrapati Bha­van, in New Delhi on July 25

The Rashtrapati Bha­van in New Delhi, of­fi­cial home of In­dia’s pres­i­dent

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