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India’s Next President: Being a Fearless ‘Constitutionalist’ Is What Matters

Every other title – 'First Tribal', 'First IAS' – is mere symbolism and a distraction.

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“Why does India need a President?” is a lazy and oft-repeated question. Well, because only the Rashtrapati is constitutionally and visibly empowered to checkmate acts of unconstitutional specificity or spirit, even if the same were approved by the dispensation of the day, or even by the will of the majority. The subtle difference between the two high offices of the President and the Prime Minister is that a Prime Minister is expected to ‘abide/respect’ the Constitution of India, whereas the President is ‘mandated’ to protect the Constitution of India. The Rashtrapati is, as cliché as it may sound, the ‘conscience-keeper’ of the Constitution, whereas the most ‘Prime’ of all the Ministers of the national cabinet is naturally given to partisan and ideological preferences.

Snapshot
  • The difference between the President and the Prime Minister is that while the latter is expected to ‘abide/respect’ the Constitution of India, whereas the President is ‘mandated’ to protect it.

  • The more insecure and authoritarian the government, the more lame-duck its preference for the occupant of the magnificent 340-room splendour on Raisina Hill.

  • Today, as India awaits its 15th Rashtrapati, the only quality that really matters is being an assertive ‘Constitutionalist’. Every other title – 'First Tribal', 'First IAS' – is mere symbolism and a distraction.

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Therefore, a powerful and conscientious Rashtrapati does not diminish – he/she actually protects – a citizen’s constitutional rights and privileges. Also, he/she can certainly debar a government from denying the same. Axiomatically, dispensations that overtly or covertly seek to revise, re-write or even re-interpret the foundational ‘Idea of India’ – and its socialist, secular and democratic ideals that assure citizens of the dignity of justice and liberty – can be given a restorative push-back.

Since independence, all partisan dispensations, without exception, have feared an upstanding ‘Constitutionalist’ and would rather have a ‘rubber stamp’ who would quietly do their bidding. The more insecure and authoritarian the government, the more it prefers a lame duck for the occupant of the magnificent 340-room splendour on Raisina Hill.

Emergency and the Perils of Having a Pliant President

The perils of having an acquiescing Rashtrapati in the face of an insecure and authoritarian government were underlined with dark ink on the midnight of 25 June 1975. A Rashtrapati with impeccable academic (Cambridge alumnus, practising lawyer, Advocate-General of a State), political (Member of State Assembly, Member of Parliament, Cabinet Minister) and ‘nationalistic’ credentials (jailed during ‘Quit India’ movement, etc) came a cropper when he meekly signed the draft Emergency proclamation, as he battled his own legalistic mind and the words of his own aides, who, too, had advised him against signing the same.

That lamentable night, the Rashtrapati is supposed to have taken a tranquilliser to sleep.

It wasn’t the lack of personal credentials, knowledge and professional accomplishments that had let down the ‘First Citizen’ and the Indian democracy – it was simply that the then-Rashtrapati hadn’t acted as an unimpeachable ‘Constitutionalist’.

He was simply meek, beholden and acquiescing to the political powers of the day.

Politicians of all hues and partisan loyalties have perfected the devious art of issue-deflection (and securing a pliant President) by proposing hugely symbolic names, ie, ‘First Muslim’, ‘First Woman’, ‘First Sikh’, ‘First Dalit’, etc. This ensures public traction and emotions while playing down the need for having fearless ‘Constitutionality’. Any amount of politico-administrative experience, education or professional accomplishment pales in comparison to the sole necessity of ‘Constitutionality’. But the emotional and partisan citizenry can easily be seduced and swayed by the chicanery of politicos to accept symbolic gratification instead of ‘Constitutionality’.

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How Zail Singh's Conscience Guided Him

President Zail Singh, the ‘First Sikh’ President, was a choice that symbolised political persuasions, with the looming backdrop of the Punjab insurgency in 1982. His infamous statement, “If my leader had said I should pick up a broom and be a sweeper, I would have done that, she chose me to be President”, is the sort of obsequiousness that would have helped his ascendancy.

But the subsequent turn of events in Punjab, his own treatment, and his own conscience led him to assert his rightful role as a ‘Constitutionalist’. Zail Singh became his own man and gave the then-Prime Minister (from Zail Singh’s own former party) many sleepless nights.

He famously refused to sign the Postal Bill that would have given the government unlimited freedom to intercept private mails (rings familiar with the Pegasus?), underlining the importance of Presidential displeasure in the interest of the constitutional spirit and citizenry.

The Legacy of KR Narayanan

Many tenures later, as politicos pandered to the political posturing and symbolism of Dalit empowerment, they inadvertently ushered in a brilliant son-of-the-soil who was arguably the finest ‘Constitutionalist’ (way beyond his personal, professional, and political achievements, and certainly beyond the wholly inadequate nomination rationale of ‘First Dalit’). Silently and dignifiedly, as what KR Narayanan called “within four corners of the constitution”, he shifted the benchmark for the role of a President from being a mere ‘Rubber-Stamp’ to a ‘working’ President.

In a Presidential tenor and expression that would seem almost unbelievable today, KR Narayanan deviated from staid conventions, gently opined and disagreed whenever he saw a compromise in constitutional propriety. In him, the citizenry was assured of a constitutional recourse, even if it were to be a moral check.
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The man of letters did not use pre-scripted drafts as he chiselled his own words in the late hours of the night, working tirelessly in his office. His speech on the Golden Jubilee of the Indian Republic spoke about persisting inequities, disparities, societal discontent and the need for accountability in governance; that speech could not have pleased the then-dispensation. It was positive pressure, not partisan politics.

KR Narayanan was no anarchist, and he initiated the pathbreaking Rashtrapati Bhawan ‘communiques’ that sought to explain his discretionary expressions. He tellingly returned files for ‘reconsideration’ that sought imposition of President’s Rule in two instances and is also known to have expressed his serious concern on the handling of the 2002 Gujarat riots to the then-Prime Minister, directly.

How Narayanan Upheld the Moral Compass

Only a KR Narayanan could reset the sovereign narrative to its moral centre as he diplomatically chided US President Bill Clinton during a banquet speech: “Globalisation does not mean the end of history and geography and of the lively and exciting diversities of the world. As an African statesman has observed, the fact that the world is a global village does not mean that it will be run by a village headman.” It was a prophetic comment, made in his unmistakably gracious and correct style.

Recognising the religious tinderbox that India was sitting on, KR Narayanan adopted a policy of avoiding places of worship or entertaining godmen or godwomen. The potential perils of polarisation were not lost on him, even then. Beyond the legalese of the clauses separating religion from state, Narayanan, as an avowed believer in the larger spirit of the Indian constitution, recognised the importance of demonstrating ‘distance’ from any religion in his conduct, speech and inferences.

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Don't Fall for the 'Firsts' 

Today, as India awaits its 15th Rashtrapati, the only quality that really matters is being an assertive ‘Constitutionalist’. Every other dimension is pure distraction and partisanship. This person would join the illustrious list of the likes of Rajendra Prasad, S Radhakrishnan, Zakir Husain, Zail Singh, KR Narayanan, and APJ Abdul Kalam, etc, and would be expected to go beyond their personal impulses and loyalties.

Falling for the symbolism of ‘Firsts’, ie, the ‘First Tribal’ or ‘First IAS bureaucrat’ attributes of Droupadi Murmu and Yashwant Sinha, respectively, is tantamount to ignoring the only quality that really matters: being a constitutionalist.

Both candidates represent an impressive political career, which also includes party-hopping. And so, only a hard introspection should decide the tiebreaker.

Only time will tell whether it will be the vote of conscience or the vote of partisan loyalties. Indian democracy is facing unprecedented times, which begs a ‘Constitutionalist’ Rashtrapati. It is absolutely necessary that this ‘institution’ triumphs and doesn’t succumb to politics.

(Lt Gen Bhopinder Singh (Retd) is a former Lt Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands & Puducherry. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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