First citizen, second fiddle

‘There shall be a President of India’, states Art 52 of the Constitution with striking simplicity. Though it is followed by several other articles detailing the powers, duties, roles etc of the President, one need not strain oneself much about the position of the Prez. ‘Cos, what emerges clearly despite the maze of Constitutional provisions is in keeping with where we started, ie, Art 52: A President of India exists. Period.

The glorified tenant of the Rashtrapathi Bhavan, has a Constitutionally guaranteed lease to live there, ‘without payment of rent’ for five years, which is extendable by as many terms as he manages to find favour with the rulers of the time. The Constitution offers little else of worth to this ‘highest office of the nation’ and its ‘first citizen’. Lofty phrases like ‘The executive power of the Union shall be vested in the President…’, ‘ …the supreme commander of the armed forces’, ‘the President shall…’, ‘…the pleasure of the President’ etc actually amount to nothing. He is bound to act on the advice – orders, really – of the council of ministers headed by the Prime Minister, who therefore wields the real executive power. It’s like one having the RC book for a vehicle and sitting at home, while the vehicle itself is driven around by someone else.

Theoretically, there could arise occasions when the President does get into the driver’s seat. But such moments are rare and transient. For, instance, it is the President who appoints the PM after ascertaining his majority and this role becomes vital in times of a fractured mandate. But the moment the PM takes oath, the Prez is eased out and the former vanishes with the vehicle. Again, if a PM loses a confidence vote and recommends dissolution, the Prez, instead of keeping to the trained habit of blindly obeying the PM and cabinet, should instead look for all alternatives before dissolving Parliament. Again, the Prez can call for any information relating to administration and legislation, but he can do precious little with that info; the first citizen is as helpless as the rest of us, lesser citizens. The Prez is also allowed to demur once, just once, to a cabinet decision. He can at best, insist on the decision to be in writing … probably to spot the dotted line easily!

Crippled thus by the Constitution and with the aforementioned minutes of fame rare to come by, the office of President has become an object of mockery, earning in the process the sobriquet ‘Rubber Stamp’. Only that, while a rubber stamp leaves at least a mark, our Presidents live and leave without a trace.

The first Rashtrapathi, Rajendra Prasad’s feeble bids to assert himself were soon overpowered by Nehru’s charisma and cunning and Presidents since then have kept to that tradition of self-subjugation. Dr Radhakrishnan, a profound scholar brought stature to the post; the ornament shone but still lay on the PM’s neck. With Indira Gandhi as PM even that shine was gone; VVGiri and Zail Singh were no ornaments either but mere doormats. Giri in fact has the dubious distinction of blatantly parading the President’s political impotence as a kind of proud pedigree, while Zail Singh excelled even Giri when he announced he was ready to sweep the floors of Indira Gandhi’s house if she wished. The Giani’s famous spat with Rajiv was a passing personal pique, not an assertion of Presidential power or pride. Rajiv’s brute majority in Parliament ensured that. Two Rashtrapathis, Zahir Hussein and Fakhruddin Ali Ahmad, who signed the Emergency, died in harness, bringing attention of a different kind to their Bhavan.

Sanjeeva Reddy, RV, KR Narayanan ..have I left out any body? …yes, SD Sharma and now Kalaam were all Presidents of the Coalition Age. With fractured mandates, hung Parliaments and alliance regimes becoming a norm now, it was hoped that the time of the President has finally arrived and his flag would fly high. Alas, but for the occasional flutter, the flag remains at half mast, often folded and tied to the pole. The politicians have prevailed and look set to keep custody and control of the keys to Rashtrapathi Bhavan. Most of our Presidents have been congressmen and this sordid history is likely to repeat. But this could yet be a positive situation when contrasted with the dreadful nightmare of a Leftist President. In which case, should we ask the electoral ‘college’ to go on strike?

Pranab, Arjun Singh, ND Tiwari, Shinde, Patil ..the Cong geriatric club is overflowing with Presidential prospects. But whoever the nominee, and it makes little difference to the nation, will be beholden to the Congress President. With an unelected appointee-PM already at her beck and call, it is indeed a double whammy for Saint Sonia to have such staunch disciples perched at political vantage points. And with polls due in 2009, it does make sense to have a loyalist posted there, in case the arithmatic goes awry. But besides Mrs.Maino, the new President would owe great debts of gratitude to a score of party leaders ranging from Karunanidhi to Mayawati. In fact, with all the on-going auctions and lobbying for the post, every MLA and MP worth his fraction of the vote is likely to feel like a Rashtrapathi-Maker. Indeed, there shall be a President of India, … at the pleasure of all and sundry!

So, the highest office of the country is up for grabs. The qualifications? Political pliability, not profound wisdom; sychophantic inclinations, not scholarly stature; lobbying skills, not mass appeal; a readiness to stoop down and lack of eagerness to stand up; and above all, the ability not just to take salutes, but to give them aplenty to every mentor calling in the favour.

My choice? A good gardener. The flowers in the Rashtrapathi Bhavan’s Mughal Garden are a visual treat and someone sensitive should tend to them. The President, then, can serve a really useful purpose.

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Jawahar T R