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What India expects from its next President

June 15, 2017 09:29 IST

'A President who is a living embodiment of high principles can tone up the entire national fabric,' says B S Raghavan, the distinguished civil servant.

A P J Kalam, the most popular Rashtrapati India has ever had, with President Pranab Mukherjee at a meeting in 2014. Photograph: PTI

The Presidential sweepstakes have begun with the notification of the Election Commission of India setting the process in motion.

India's President is a patently, if not blatantly, ostentatious oddity in a country whose people are yet to be assured of their basic services.

He is a person invisible most of the time, cast in the cavernous cage of a Rashtrapati Bhavan, bound hand and foot by the Constitution with no role other than signing on the dotted line and performing meaningless rituals.

Out of the 13 Presidents India has had so far, only four could be said to be memorable in popular esteem; the rest were either mediocrities or mockeries.

The reason is obvious: The political class of whichever complexion does not want to instal anyone of true and solid worth, strong moral fibre and high professional and intellectual endowments with capacity for independent thinking, who would presume to hold it to account.

With the result, though the Constitution makers conceived the President to be a tribune of the people and made him an integral part of Parliament itself, political parties have tended to treat the post as a sinecure and the occupant as a cipher, with little use for any experience and knowledge he may bring to it.

In brief, the choice of the President has been reduced to a game of oneupmanship that political parties play among themselves.

This time too the charade of winnowing the several names that are being merrily bandied about is going on in the time-dishonoured fashion.

I think it is high time the selection process ceased to be the exclusive preserve and prerogative of a select few with their own axes to grind.

It should be broadened and deepened to include consultations with eminent achievers in different walks of life, such as eminent professionals, the scientific community, the legal fraternity, business and industry, trade unions, women's groups, voluntary organisations, the academia and even the student community, encompassing the civil society in general.

For instance, as suggested at one time by the former chief election commissioner, Mr T S Krishnamurthy, We, the People, who, till now had been mute, and sidelined, spectators, should demand adoption of a Constitutional amendment to include in the Presidential electoral college all elected representatives in local governments, as a way of broad-basing the composition of the electors to the high office.

This will be in consonance with the Indian tradition of janapadas and it will also enable Panchayati Raj institutions to slowly evolve into a Peoples' Parliament.

This will also get over the limitations of an indirect election, and generate a sense of the people's participation in the choice.

It will lead to the President being regarded, when s/he assumes charge, the friend, philosopher and guide to her/his council of ministers, Parliament and the people as a whole, reflecting their aspirations and symbolising the unity of the nation.

This will help her/him rise to his full potential as the First Servant of the People, exactly as the founding fathers intended her/him to be.

Indeed, if s/he is a person of sagacity and integrity, s/he can, from behind the scenes, even serve as a great force safeguarding the noble values of India's glorious heritage and the nation's paramount interests.

Whoever is elected, s/he should conduct herself/himself as a role model, and as a standard-bearer and a shining beacon, who will do the country proud.

Here are a few benchmarks against which the people, and s/he herself/himself, should judge her/his worthiness for the job.

Adopting a simple and austere lifestyle: S/he should eschew ostentation and opulence, and lead a frugal life, emulating A P J Abdul Kalam.

Being accountable to the People: The oath the President takes requires her/him not only to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution and the law, but also to devote herself/himself to the service and well-being of the people of India.

'Preserving' the Constitution means not allowing it to be trampled upon and not letting the institutions it has created be defiled and subverted.

Being sensitive and responsive to People's representations: The President has to sensitise her/his secretariat to the imperative need to respond promptly to, and follow up on, the letters and representations received from the People.

Hitherto the practice has been to forward them to the concerned ministries/agencies, with a copy endorsed to the sender, and then forget about them.

Instead, s/he should introduce the practice of her/his secretariat ascertaining from the government the nature of the action taken and informing the sender.

A time limit of two months should also be fixed for taking action.

Visiting various parts of the country, especially the farthermost corners, frequently: This can be with five objectives in mind:

  • To be visible and accessible to all sections of people;
  • To enthuse individuals and institutions engaged in worthwhile public causes;
  • To put heart into the weaker sections of society by having a running awareness of their problems;
  • To maintain contact with youth and women, in particular, so as to channelise their energies towards nation-building activities;
  • and to inspect schemes and projects undertaken by the government so as to keep those implementing them on their toes.

Diligently scrutinising Cabinet papers and proposals coming to her/him: The Constitution gives the President the right, 'generally or otherwise', to require reconsideration of any advice given by the Cabinet, although s/he is bound to follow the advice received after such reconsideration.

Under a centuries-old convention, the British monarch on whom India's Presidency has been modelled, enjoys the right 'to advise, encourage and warn' the ministers in furtherance of the national interest.

India's President can also press this into service, by having the Bills and other proposals properly scrutinised, before approving them.

Keeping abreast of developments: There is already a practice in Britain of the prime minister having lunch with the monarch every Tuesday during which there is an informal and comprehensive exchange of views and information.

In India too, it is desirable to adopt a similar practice. It can also be extended to cover heads of political parties and Members of Parliament.

The President, of course, should be liberal in giving as many visitors from the different parts of the country as possible opportunities to meet her/him, and earnestly pursue the matters they bring to her/his attention.

Briefing himself on the quality of governance: The President can also meet periodically functionaries such as the Central Vigilance Commissioner; Chairman, Union Public Service Commission; Secretaries to government and heads of Public Sector Enterprises to get an overall picture in regard to the quality of governance.

Using Rashtrapati Bhavan to generate new ideas or launch non-political initiatives: Even within the Constitutional parameters, a keen and creative President can use her/his stature and influence to bring together leading lights in various fields such as agriculture, industry, science, technology, education, population trends, social service and environment, and encourage them to do out-of-the-box thinking on current and emerging issues of importance and forward to the government or the concerned agencies recommendations for further course of action.

This was what C Subramaniam used to do when he was the governor of Maharashtra, thereby converting the Raj Bhavan into a veritable power-house of ideas.

Keeping a watchful eye on defence and security: The Constitution vests the supreme command of the defence forces of the Union in the President, stating that the exercise of her/his authority by the Supreme Commander should be regulated by law. No such law has so far been passed.

Arguably, while the President qua President is bound by Cabinet advice, the Supreme Commander, with a distinct and separate role in its own right, should be empowered to act in her/his best judgment when the nation's defence demands instant decisions in grave situations.

Otherwise, s/he will be neither supreme nor a commander.

Time-lines for definitive disposal of references on various issues: As at present, there is no time limit prescribed for giving Presidential assent to Bills, especially those received from the states.

The delays in dealing with petitions for clemency, pardon, and the like often reach unacceptable proportions.

Generally speaking, a sense of time, simplicity and integrity is still foreign to the national character.

A President who is a living embodiment of high principles can tone up the entire national fabric.

B S Raghavan, a former member of the Indian Administrative Service, has worked closely with the first three prime ministers of India.
He had held high positions in the state and central governments, and the United Nations, and is a regular commentator on national and international affairs.

IMAGE: A P J Kalam, the most popular Rashtrapati India has ever had, with President Pranab Mukherjee at a meeting in 2014. Photograph: PTI

B S Raghavan