June 18, 2002


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Arvind Lavakare

"A titular head?"

President -- A Titular Head. That's the sub-heading of a book by M P Jain, a respected authority on the legal facets of India's Constitution.

In his 953-page book, Indian Constitutional Law (Wadhwa & Company, Nagpur, Fourth Edition, Reprint 1994), Jain says: 'The President is more of a symbol used to formulate the decisions arrived at by the ministers and the Cabinet. The President's role as a figurehead is reflected in his indirect election. If he were to be elected directly by adult franchise, then it might have been anomalous not to give him any real powers; and it was feared [by the stalwarts who framed the Constitution of India] that he might emerge as a centre of power in his own right. No such phrases as "discretion" and "individual judgment" were adopted in the Constitution in relation to the President.'

In order to ensure that the President of India was just 'a titular head', 'a figure-head', and 'a symbol', the government of Indira Gandhi [of Sonia's Congress, remember] brought the 42nd constitutional amendment whereby Article 74(i) explicitly stated that the President shall act in accordance with the advice of the ministers in exercise of his functions. This amendment made explicit what had been implicit from our Constitution's commencement in 1950 till that time; it reiterated the position, in black and white, of what had become a convention -- by a 'gentlemen's agreement' so to say.

The 44th constitutional amendment effected by Morarji Desai's Janata Party government in 1978 did not change the above mandate to the President but, by a provision supplementing Article 78(c), it allowed the President the limited right to ask the Council of Ministers to reconsider its advice, but still remaining bound to act in accordance with such reconsideration.

Thus, till five years ago, the constitutional position was, by and large, the one enumerated by Dr B R Ambedkar, viz 'the same as the King under the English Constitution: a ceremonial device on a seal by which the nation's decisions are made known', though it was understood that, behind the scenes, the President's role was also like that of the British sovereign: 'to advise, encourage and warn Ministers in respect of the recommendations which they made'.

Hence it is that in his above-referred book, Jain stated that 'his [the President's] role is at best advisory; he may act as the friend, guide and philosopher to the ministers, but cannot assume to himself the role of their master -- a role which is assigned to the prime minister. The Constitution intends that the President should be a centre from which a beneficent influence should radiate over the whole administration, and not that he should be the focus of any power.'

That position stood until five years ago -- until K R Narayanan entered the erstwhile Viceroy's House that the Republic of India renamed Rashtrapati Bhavan and made the abode of the President of India.

Narayanan, a Congress party man with distinct leftist leanings, was soon to mock the 'titular head' sobriquet as he encountered the BJP in power and almost seemed to exult in needling the ruling government till almost the other day.

Thus, instead of following the tradition of delivering the pre-Independence Day address to the nation on All India Radio and on Doordarshan when television arrived, he chose a confirmed leftist newspaper editor for a free-wheeling interview in which he had the gall to announce that he was determined to be 'a working President', pre-empting any rubber-stamping.

He was the one who humiliated the leader of the party with the largest number of MPs by telling him to produce letters of support before asking him to form the government; thus was the nation subjected to the sorry spectacle of the tallest leader in the country scurrying emissaries to beg for signed letters on letterheads, as though signed pledges of our politicians had any permanence.

Without checking the entire background, he was the one who issued with alacrity a public statement instructing an internationally embarrassed government to protect the minorities just because one of the Christian missionaries had, with his two sons, been put to a fiery death that day by fanatics in tribal Orissa.

He was the one who penned a controversial note to India's chief justice on the appointment of judges.

He was the one who, when he wanted certain information, chose to call a Cabinet minister rather than the prime minister himself. On another occasion, he summoned the Cabinet secretary, rather than the PM, to brief him.

He was the one who publicly ran down economic reforms and the need for a commission to review the Constitution's working, and later ridiculed a discussion paper of that commission.

He was the first one in his office to cast his vote in the general election, thereby exhibiting his political leaning. He probably created another 'first' by causing the Delhi high court to admit a petition early last year challenging his decision in April 1999 of inviting Sonia Gandhi to explore the possibility of forming an alternative government though she was not leader of the Opposition.

He was the one who publicly pleaded justice for the poor but blinked at his daughter's elevation to ambassadorial status in supercession of some more experienced ones in her cadre.

He was the one who asked the Council of Ministers to reconsider its advice of bringing President's rule in Bihar where, today, cars are hijacked from showrooms to transport invitees for the wedding of the CM's daughter.

And he was the one who, at a banquet for the US president, took pot shots at his country.

Narayanan was truly the working, needling President who became 'the focus of attention' if not 'the focus of power'. And even at the age of 81, after having spent an undisclosed quantum of rupees of the taxpayer's money on his ailments, wanted a second term at Rashtrapati Bhavan via the support of his Congress and the Commies. Even Prime Minister Vajpayee's direct message to him that 'enough is enough' did not deter him from wanting to continue. The nomination of Abdul Kalam by the NDA government two weeks later did, however, truly 'nuke' his desire, however covert it might have been kept.

It must be admitted that Narayanan's ingenuity in oft ruffling feathers without plucking them truly exposed the myth that the President of India was merely 'a titular head' or any of the other equivalent phrases.

No wonder then that the Congress and the motley People's Front were rooting for a second term for Narayanan. Their eyes were clearly on the next parliamentary election scheduled for 2004. Another fractured verdict, they calculated, needed an 'innovative', 'friendly' President to seat them in the throne.

Two asides on the recent acrimony over the choice of our next President. One is the Opposition's shrill demand for a consensus candidate. The Congress and its pink allies wanted everyone to forget that even when Rajiv Gandhi had supreme sway in Parliament in 1987, his nominee, R Venkataraman, was not the choice by consensus. The Opposition fielded V R Krishna Iyer, a former Supreme Court judge, who launched a powerful campaign, even throwing the gauntlet of a televised debate a la the US.

The second aside: why do people like Narayanan, 81, and Alexander, 81, want to be President of India instead of retreating to a quiet, contented life of non-attachment? Is it the pomp, the patronage, the perquisites and the pension of the job? Is it the irresistible lure of life in a 345-room palace in a 400-acre garden, lording over 350 officers, more than 200 household helps, 165 gardeners, 150 sanitary workers, 30 butlers and 15 cooks? All this and much more for the 'titular head' of a poverty-stricken country.

Former President R Venkataraman has recorded that Winston Churchill was aghast at seeing, just two days after Viceroy's House had been thrown open to the public, 'a fakir ... striding half-naked, up the steps of the viceregal palace ... to parley on equal terms with the representative of the King Emperor'.

As another of India's believers in humble living and high thinking goes to live in Rashtrapati Bhavan next month, the nation must hope that its scientist par excellence remains unsullied by his abode's obscene grandeur and instead brings us the beneficent dignity, sagacity and vision so very essential for the titular head of our one billion and more.

The Presidential Election 2002

Arvind Lavakare

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