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February 28, 1998


Saisuresh Sivaswamy

Over to the President

It is unlikely that any President before has left as deep a mark on the polity in so little a time as the incumbent of Rashtrapati Bhavan.

Months into his new role, K R Narayanan served notice that he was no pushover, that he did not think of the Presidency as a sinecure, and that there was no way he would merely sign along the dotted line, when he returned the Union Cabinet's decision to impose central rule in Uttar Pradesh after the calamitous vote of trust in the BJP's favour.

Any self-respecting government would have resigned at this travesty of fairplay that the President's rebuff highlighted, but then no one believed that the United front was a paragon of anything barring, maybe, ridiculous anti-BJPism.

Recently Narayanan also became the first President since the Republic's inception to have cast his vote, clearly indicating that he meant to keep his personal life and the onerous constitutional obligations imposed on him separate. When his predecessors abstained from casting their vote, they sent out the message that they meant themselves to be seen as above preferring any one party or individual. In the turbulent times we live in, Narayanan has made it clear that his rights and duties as citizen transcended his official function, even if the rest don't believe in his impartiality merely because he has exercised his preference for a party.

Critics of his decision to exercise his franchise, obviously, believe that no other constitutional authority should cast his or her vote; that journalists too should not vote. And when you extend this list to include judges and Election Commission officials, the ridiculousness of the argument is apparent.

Perhaps rankled by Narayanan's decision to cast his vote, someone as senior in the political pecking order as Harkishan Singh Surjeet went as far as to question his criticism of the egregious Uttar Pradesh governor, a criticism that the nation shares in. By voicing his reservations about the President's views, Surjeet has exposed his hypocrisy.

Don't forget, in his haste to criticise the President, Surjeet has joined the side of Bhandari and Co -- in whose fairness the Left Front had no confidence earlier, when Bhandari was governor of Marxist-ruled Tripura. Obviously, Surjeet believes that an injustice loses its inequity if perpetrated against the BJP, or the 'communal forces.'

Thankfully, the President and the judiciary do not see issues in such stark black and white. Fortunately, by making allowances for the large grey area, the rule of law has triumphed, as evidenced by Jagdambika Pal's humiliation on Thursday -- unless, of course, it is anyone's case that every single authority in the country has been infiltrated by the saffron brigade, including Rashtrapati Bhavan.

The President's impartiality is going to be tested as never before next week, when the results of the 12th general election are announced. It is more or less certain at this late hour that the electorate remains confused about voting for one single party or group, and is determined to make the President earn his salary.

It is also certain that the same anti-BJP refrain heard nearly two years ago will surface next week, with individuals with a questionable past jostle and shove to cobble together a patchwork of political parties, disparate in their ideology but brought together by the lure of power and the fear of the BJP.

And the authority for determining whether such an obviously fragile arrangement can continue to lead the nation at such a crucial junction in its history, rests with the President.

Who, if the recent past is any indication, is not going to get taken is merely by the numbers theory. Going by his record, he is not going to agree to any inherently weak bloc ascending the throne in New Delhi without satisfying himself about its shock absorbing capacity, over its internal grievance redress mechanism, and, of course, the strength of its commitment to stick together under adverse circumstances.

Perhaps the President may even question the logic of a United Front-Congress pact, given that it is this very combination that put the nation through an expensive election. The illogic of the situation is apparent to a layman, and surely the President is endowed with far greater intelligence to discern it.

But one thing is sure: whichever way the political wind blows, there are going to be eyebrows raised at the President's future course of action. Whatever decision he takes, it is not going to satisfy everyone. If people as venerable as Surjeet can question the President's wisdom over the Uttar Pradesh drama, even smaller fries will not now hesitate to ventilate their views about the post-election reality.

Which raises the question if an active President is a risk to the smooth functioning of democracy. Yes, and no.

A President with an unfinished agenda, a President with a grouse against the government of the day, a President with inherent megalomania that believes the government exists at his pleasure, like what prevailed during the Rajiv Gandhi regime, is ruinous for the polity. The President in effect is meant to serve as a guiding spirit, who cautions and counsels whenever the government has strayed from the straight and narrow -- as it has repeatedly done in the case of Uttar Pradesh.

And his role during the government formation has altered if only slightly. When the nation went though stable times, there was nothing much for him to do but go by the numbers, which were loud and clear anyway. In times of an unstable polity, as we have been experiencing since 1989, the President has not merely to satisfy himself about the numbers, but also the stability and durability of the arrangement that he will pitchforking into the centrestage. Surely, it is no one's contention that his is a case of duty alone -- to verify the numbers -- and not responsibility -- to satisfy himself of the viability of the numbers?

This President has so far not hesitated to take the bull by the horns. Hopefully, next week, the nation will not be given a chance to review this opinion.

Saisuresh Sivaswamy

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