The parliamentary form of government in India has a President who is the head of state and a Prime Minister (PM) who is the head of council of ministers.
This system has worked well for decades now. Though there have been conflicts between the PM and some ‘activist’ Presidents, the situation was handled well due to mutual respect for each other.
There are voices that call for more powers to the President so that he can act as a counterbalance to the office of PM. In my opinion, this is not desirable due to the following factors:
1) Problem With Dual Power Centre
If we have a polity wherein every decision of the government needs to be vetted by the President, then it would lead to unnecessary delay. According to Article 74 (1) of the Constitution, the President has to act on the aid and advice of the council of ministers.
Forefathers of our Constitution were very clear. They did not want to create two power centres. During a debate in the constituent assembly, Dr Ambedkar had emphasised that the President will generally be bound by the advice of the ministers.
2) Spat Between President and PM is Unwarranted
Two power centres could lead to conflict situations which would make for an ugly public spectacle. There have been instances in the past of the President and the Prime Minister locking horns with each other, going back to the very first tenure of Presidentship.
Dr Rajendra Prasad was unhappy with certain sections of the Hindu Code Bill. However, on the advice of the Attorney General, he signed the bill as he did not want to cause a constitutional crisis.
Both Nehru and Prasad, freedom fighters, colleagues and friends, knew that a healthy relationship between the President and PM was needed for proper functioning of the constitutional machinery.
3) PM Should Have More Authority
While it is true, to some extent, that the Prime Minister is elected by the MPs of the largest party or coalition, elections to the Indian Lok Sabha are increasingly going the Presidential way.
In recent elections, more and more people are voting for a leader they want as PM, ignoring the local candidates in some cases. In 2009 and 2014, the PM candidates of major parties were announced beforehand. One out of every four people who voted for the BJP did so because of the Modi factor in 2014 (CSDS survey).
The President, on the other hand, is elected by an electoral college comprising MPs and MLAs. He is not the people’s representative and should not have equal or more powers than the PM.
4) The President Can Ask Questions
It is not a fair assessment that the President is essentially a rubber stamp. Presidents in the past have chosen not to act upon the aid and advice of the council of ministers. During 1991-1996, former President Shankar Dayal Sharma didn’t give his assent for the promulgation of two ordinances sent to him by then PM Narasimha Rao.
Similarly, Giani Zail Singh and R Venkataraman did not give their assent to the Post Office (Amendment) Bill 1986. APJ Abdul Kalam didn’t give his assent to the office of profit bill. KR Narayanan rejected the Vajpayee government’s recommendation of imposing President’s Rule in Uttar Pradesh.
Recently, Pranab Mukherjee posed some questions pertaining to the imposition of the President Rule in Arunachal Pradesh and Home Minister Rajnath Singh had to personally go and explain the situation to him.
5) Balance of Power
We have a bicameral legislature, comprising theLok Sabha and Rajya Sabha. The Rajya Sabha or the Council of States ensures the representation of regional parties in the Upper House. The weakening of the Congress, since the late 1980s, has meant that the national parties – the Congress and the BJP – do not have a majority in the Rajya Sabha.
This ensures that national parties cannot pass bills at their will and neglect the interests of regional forces. This, in turn, leads to healthy discussions and efforts to build consensus on issues of national significance.
Should the Office of President be Abolished?
In my opinion, the office of President should, in fact, be abolished. The rationale for the same is detailed below:
1) Other Institutions Can Perform President’s Functions
In a July 2012 post for Economic Times, Saubhik Chakrabarti highlights that there are essentially four KRAs of the President of India and all of these can be taken care of by the Election Commission or Supreme Court of India.
(i) call on government formation in case of a fractured mandate,
(ii) take a call on imposition of President’s Rule
(iii) act as a repository for particularly controversial legislative bills
(iv) clear clemency petitions
2) Taking a Cue from the US
The US follows the Presidential form of government and is known for its vibrant democracy. It doesn’t have a Prime Minister. The President is the head of the state as well as the government.
After Independence, there was debate in the constituent assembly on parliamentary versus presidential form of government.
Supporters of the parliamentary system argued that it will be easy to operate the country by the parliamentary form as we are have been governed this way for around three-quarters of a century.
In the end, we opted for the parliamentary form, and instead of a monarch as the head of state, we created the post of elected President as titular head. On the other hand, the US changed all rules after independence on the premise that the rules governing the country were made by the British and for the British.
3) Post Retirement Option
The office of President is often seen as a post retirement option for politicians. In recent times, the post of President has been occupied by people whom many believe were not worthy of occupying such a high seat of power. They were offered the position because of loyalty to a particular family. On the other hand, popular presidents like APJ Abdul Kalam couldn’t get a second term due to political machinations on part of various parties.
The average age of Presidents of India when they assumed office (excluding acting Presidents) is 72 years. This clearly seems to be out of place in a country where 65 percent of the population is below 35 years of age.
4) Expenditure Incurred
According to an RTI query, the government spends Rs 100 crore on salaries, travel, maintenance of the Rashtrapati Bhavan and other expenses (on an average). All this for a titular head. This is the same amount it would take to provide 6.75 lakh primary school students with mid-day meal for a whole year.
To sum up, more powers to President or enhanced activism from President is not required as it will create two power centres. In fact, we should explore the option of abandoning this position all together. The same holds true for the position of Governors.
With the Presidential election due for July 2017, The Quint debates whether India’s constitution makers erred in divesting the constitutional head of crucial decision making powers. This is the counterview, you can read the view by Bhanu Dhamija here.
(The author is an independent political commentator and can be reached at @politicalbaaba. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)