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Mr Rashtrapati, please tell us how to repair the Republic!

Last updated on: January 31, 2014 12:42 IST

Since Pranab Mukherjee is the Custodian of the Constitution, he should present practical ideas to solve the problems he has been so outspokenly highlighting, feels Sudheendra Kulkarni.

President Pranab MukherjeeWhen the President of India speaks, the nation listens. This is no doubt because of the majesty and importance of the office of the President. What this office means to India is not quite conveyed by the rather commonplace English word 'President'; we need to go to the Sanskrit title 'Rashtrapati' to understand the gravitas of the highest Constitutional position held by the occupant of that stately building on Raisina Hill.

Quite literally, the President of India is the Custodian of the Rashtra or the Nation.

When the present President of India speaks, the nation listens even more intently. Pranab Mukherjee is, in many ways, the right man at the right place at the right time given the rather uncertain transition that India is currently negotiating.

No President in recent times has made more pointed comments and voiced veiled criticisms about the state of politics and governance in the country.

Being a product of the same political and governance system, he has a deep understanding of the good, the bad and the ugly in this system.

Those who know him well, know that he is a person who speaks his mind, and quite assertively too.

He did so in his customary address on the eve of the 65th Republic Day. When he said that 'populist anarchy cannot be a substitute for governance', he was expressing his strong disapproval of Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal's unprecedented protest action near Parliament just ahead of Republic Day.

Kejriwal had shown himself to be an anarchist, both in words and deeds, by his derogatory utterances about Republic Day and by the reckless dharna he staged, along with all his ministerial colleagues, at an unauthorised place in an unauthorised manner.

Had the chief minister continued his 'insurgency' even a day longer, it would have been a fit case for the dismissal of the state government for violating the letter and spirit of the Constitution, and for precipitating a potentially serious law and order problem in the heart of the capital.

Kejriwal ought to be grateful to the Congress leadership for saving his government by giving him a face-saver to end his misadventure.

The Presidential rebuke to the Aam Aadmi Party's government was well-deserved. Nevertheless, the media debate following Mukherjee's address has somehow given the impression that the target of his admonition was only the AAP government in Delhi. This is not true. His was a more generalised commentary on several entrenched negative trends in Indian politics.

When he decried 'false promises' by politicians which he rightly said 'lead to disillusionment, which gives birth to rage, and that rage has one legitimate target: those in power', he evidently did not have only one party or government in mind.

When he exhorted that 'government is not a charity shop', he was referring to the tendency among many governments that have made it a habit to dole out sops to different categories of society.

Even the United Progressive Alliance government, of which Mukherjee was himself a senior member for a long time, is not entirely blameless in this regard.

Look at the populist Food Security Act, which, at enormous cost to the exchequer and clearly with an eye on the elections, seeks to cover two-thirds of the country's population.

On the one hand, the Food Security Act fails to provide full-range food security to the poorest sections of the population. On the other, it needlessly brings a large section of the above-poverty line families under its purview.

Apart from the burden on government finances, this ill-designed scheme introduces debilitating distortions in India's agriculture economy.

The President's scathing words on corruption were also not aimed at any single party or government. 'Corruption,' he said, 'is a cancer that erodes democracy, and weakens the foundations of our State. If Indians are enraged, it is because they are witnessing corruption and waste of national resources.'

Who can say that these words do not apply to the corruption scams of the UPA government at the Centre or of the Bharatiya Janata Party government in Karnataka when it was headed by B S Yeddyurappa?

The President cautioned that 'Elections do not give any person the licence to flirt with illusions.' Again, the AAP is not the only party that is guilty of such flirting. Just before the election to the Maharashtra Vidhan Sabha in 2004, the late Shiv Sena supremo Balasaheb Thackeray had promised that, if voted to power, the Sena-BJP alliance would provide free power to the agricultural sector.

Not to be outdone, Sushilkumar Shinde, who was then heading the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party coalition government in the state, quickly announced free electricity to farmers.

The state electricity board even dispatched bills to farmers indicating that they had nothing to pay for the electricity they had consumed. This helped the Congress-NCP government return to power in the state.

However, the next chief minister, the late Vilasrao Deshmukh who replaced Shinde, lost no time to reverse this decision. When the Opposition criticised him for backtracking on his party's poll promise, Deshmukh was candour personified. 'Such promises are made during election season,' he said.

What came out unambiguously in the President's address was his frank recognition that people are getting fed up with corruption and also with bad governance. Mukherjee said: '(People) do feel angry, and rightly so, when (they) see democratic institutions being weakened by complacency and incompetence. If we hear sometimes an anthem of despair from the street, it is because people feel that a sacred trust is being violated.'

The 'anthem of despair' being heard on more and more Indian streets is not to be misread as the aam aadmi's lack of faith in democracy itself. It is an outcome of political parties and governments taking the common people for granted.

It is the result of the political establishment's arrogant belief that democracy is an art of manipulation of the electorate and, once the votes are secured, of turning the voters into meek supplicants.

As the President sagaciously remarked, 'Some cynics may scoff at our commitment to democracy, but our democracy has never been betrayed by the people; its fault-lines, where they exist, are the handiwork of those who have made power a gateway to greed.'

Power as a 'gateway to greed' accurately defines the pursuit of many politicians, and also of their relatives and friends, in many political parties. Common people see how political functionaries quickly amass wealth, real estate being their preferred area of investment.

Although the Congress has been the trendsetter in this abominable art of self-enrichment, almost all other parties have become its expert practitioners.

The Indian people are very tolerant. Collective show of well-targeted anger is not our national trait. Nevertheless, anger arising out of a sense of injustice has a way of manifesting itself in unexpected ways.

This was evident in the astonishing response, especially from the urban educated youth, to Anna Hazare's movement against corruption a couple of years ago.

This was also evident in the spectacular performance of the Aam Aadmi Party, which clearly benefited from Anna Hazare's movement, in the recent Delhi assembly elections.

If the AAP government betrays the people's trust, it too will be a target of the popular rage.

President Mukherjee alluded to this in his speech. Indeed, he urged governments to recognise that people are impatient for results. 'This rage will abate only when governments deliver what they were elected to deliver: Social and economic progress, not at a snail's pace, but with the speed of a racehorse.'

'The aspirational young Indian will not forgive a betrayal of her future,' the Rashtrapati said. 'Those in office must eliminate the trust deficit between them and the people. Those in politics should understand that every election comes with a warning sign: Perform, or perish.'

The President's address is indeed a must-read for all pro-people political functionaries, and also all those who are seriously interested in politics in this election year.

However, it is necessary to emphasise here that, in the present circumstances, no government -- even if it is headed by a competent, well-meaning and honest prime minister or chief minister -- can perform as well as it wishes unless India introduces radical reforms in its political, electoral and governance systems.

Some governments may perform better than others. Some political functionaries may be less corrupt than others. Indeed, there are many upright and incorruptible leaders in various political parties.

In a highly fractured polity like ours, it has indeed become inescapable even for honest leaders to resort to the politics of populism and to condone corruption. Mukherjee knows this all too well.

Therefore, now that he does not have the burden of political management either in his own party or in a coalition, and especially since he is now the Custodian of the Constitution, he should present practical ideas and suggestions for solving the problems that he has been so outspokenly highlighting.

After all, the nation expects the Rashtrapati to show how to repair our Republic.

Sudheendra Kulkarni