An articulate actor known for her women-centric roles was once famously quizzed about the name of the President of India. The year was 2012, and symbolically, India’s ‘first female’ President was completing her five-year term. To the bemusement of many, the actor embarrassingly named another politician. Memes haven’t stopped since, though very recently, the same actor yet again crossed the significant Rs 100-crore collection mark, that too in the COVID era, with another women-centric superhit.
Misplaced, inelegant and rather stereotypical jokes aside (especially when the said actor has had the last laugh many times thereafter), the incident should have forced us to think about the more serious question of the role and relevance of the Rashtrapati in the national imagination.
The Cliché of ‘Conscience-Keeper’ Is Not a Cliché, After All
So, why should it matter? Isn’t a Rashtrapati, after all, a mere ceremonial figurehead, who, in the words of Jawaharlal Nehru, is “a head that neither reigns nor governs”? Hasn’t it usually been the preserve of affable geriatrics, and political has-beens? A post for symbolic posturing, for example, ‘first woman’, ‘first Dalit’, ‘first Sikh’, etc? Aren’t generous and flowery labels, such as the ‘conscience-keeper’ of the Constitution of India, just simple niceties? The short answer is, not necessarily, not always.
The Rashtrapati may not have executive powers under the Indian Constitution, but s/he, as the mandated ‘First Citizen’ of the sovereign, can be the last and only check-and-balance recourse for protection against the paradoxes of liberal democracy and its misuse of power. It is sometimes misunderstood that a vote of the majority entitles the dispensation of the day to an authoritative expression of ‘what is right’.
On the contrary, the acid test for authoritative action can only be constitutional validity (or at least, constitutional morality). The Rashtrapati is duty-bound and empowered simultaneously by the oath or affirmation under Article 60, which states, “[I] Solemnly affirm that I will faithfully execute the office of President (or discharge the function of the President) of India and will to the best of my ability preserve, protect and defend the Constitution and the law and that I will devote myself to the service and well-being of the people of India”.
This is a priceless function that can ensure the healthy working of the twin pillars of democracy, ie, majority rule and the protection of minorities (or minority viewpoint), in order to delegitimise the possible regression towards majoritarianism.
Sometimes, only the Rashtrapati can call out a compromise with Constitutional morality, as the questionable executive actions could well be within the realm of legality. Hence, the cliché of the ‘conscience-keeper’ may not be a cliché, after all.
How Nehru Tried to Diminish Rajendra Prasad's Role
Let’s face it, no less an icon of democracy like Jawaharlal Nehru himself tried to diminish or at least ‘control’ the role of Dr Rajendra Prasad, the first President of India. Constitutionally envisaged to be ‘bound by the advice of his Ministers….’, Rajendra ‘Babu’, as the former Presiding Officer of the Constituent Assembly, subsequently took as much ‘advice’ as he sagely gave in return, thus setting a healthy expectation of apolitical probity that eschewed remaining beholden to the political powers that were responsible for his ascendancy to the post of President.
Rajendra Prasad, described for his integrity as a ‘man amongst men’ by Mahatma Gandhi, had stated, ‘We shall, therefore, be only implementing in practice under our Constitution what we have inherited from our traditions, namely, freedom of opinion and expressions’.
Icons of civilisational-constitutional commitment, such as S Radhakrishnan, Zakir Hussain, etc., followed, but soon, the politics of the times would bear very different colours from the top of the Raisina Hill.
In 1975, the perils of falling short of the letter, and more importantly, the spirit of constitutionality were seen with the midnight signing of the Emergency decree by President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed. It posited a dangerous alternative to the desired template for a ‘Rashtrapati’.
India and its hallowed experiment in democracy became poorer, as suppression of democratic necessities like opposition, civil rights, dissent and free media became ‘possible’ hereinafter. That night, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed is believed to have taken a tranquilliser.
But the ‘Idea of India’ faced incalculable damage, which shows how India suffers when any incumbent to the majestic 340-room Rashtrapati Bhawan becomes as obsequious to the dispensation of the day.
The Blot of Emergency
India’s intrinsic faith in democracy was able to overcome the shame of the Emergency, with many Presidents demonstrating avowedly apolitical conduct with the likes of Neelam Sanjiva Reddy, who authored Without Fear or Favour: Reminiscences and Reflections of a President. However, it was the likes of Zail Singh, blessed with earthy wisdom, who took on the susceptible ‘system’ (without partisan considerations) with novel measures like deliberately not deciding on files sent for his ‘pleasure’ (assent) as an unsaid way of communicating his personal displeasure, without expressively saying so.
As constitutional expert Fali Nariman observed, “A President provides the window (perhaps the only one) in the wall of separation that divides those in government from the rest of the populace.”
By their bearing and said or unsaid words, the responsibility of Rashtrapatis is to restore the magnificence and relevance of the institution of the President of India.
The Emergency was to be the first and the last of its kind of excess, though the dangers of a repeat digression always remain.
Attempts to short-circuit or short-sell democracy were always made by all ruling parties (without exception). To think otherwise is only partisan loyalty and blind faith in the infallibility of some Indian politicians and parties. Historically, such misplaced trust has led to severe consequences.
Learning from KR Narayanan
Indian democracy’s finest product, and who was also an example of the country’s immense possibilities, was KR Narayanan, the 10th Rashtrapati. He was arguably its most assertive leader, even as he functioned the four corners of the constitutional tenets and sobriety. To remember him just as the ‘first Dalit’ President may be factually true but unjust for his genius, scholarship and contribution to Indian democracy. He repeatedly cautioned about constitutional-democratic stability and warned prophetically that it ‘could slip into an authoritarian exercise of power’.
During his tenure, he remained what he described as a ‘working President’ who once famously insisted that he was not a ‘rubber stamp’. Irrespective of the political dispensations in power, KR Narayanan upheld, openly questioned and asserted his constitutional concerns, dignifiedly but surely.
He added one more crucial aspect, ie, transparency to citizenry, in communicating his decisions’ rationales. He made the institution a live, breathing and salvaging instrument of political recourse and constitutional protection.
There was once a loaded attempt to ‘review’ the sacred Constitution by the dispensation and the same was made a part of the official draft given to KR Narayanan, as part of his address to Parliament. He was not one to question the right of the government to insert the same into his speech, but at the same time, he was also duty bound by his own sworn oath to protect the Constitution. In his inimitable style, he added, as only he could, “Today, when there is so much talk about revising the Constitution or even writing a new Constitution, we have to consider whether it is the Constitution that has failed us or whether it is we who have failed the Constitution.” The weight and impact of his telling words (though only bearing moral freight) were so significant that they saved the day for the Constitution of India.
KR Narayanan’s presidentship ensured a culture of ‘questioning’ that was to be upheld above the executive.
The Meaningless Symbolism of 'Firsts'
Now, elections for the 17th Rashtrapati are to be held soon, and the wounded and polarised nation must think of the various incumbents that have already been there, and, therefore, about the template of the person that India now wants in the Rashtrapati Bhawan. It’s not about the individual name, party affiliation or even the accompanying qualifications of the said person, but the moral ‘template’, integrity and commitment towards upholding the Constitution, fairly and fearlessly, that ought to determine the choice after 75 years of independence.
The politics of symbolism in denominating Presidents as a ‘First…’ is nothing but distractive and meaningless politics. This is one institution that needs to be truly above partisan considerations.
Will the dispensation of the day show that moral courage, constitutional spirit and large-heartedness in selecting a candidate that acts as an effective valve and check-and-balance of democracy, or will it succumb to choosing one who bides his/her time, signing the ‘advice’ of the cabinet unquestioningly?
The selection will be as much about the spirit of the dispensation (which realistically has the numbers to choose anyone without a challenge) as it is about the future of democracy in India.
After all, ‘rubber stamps’ will always struggle to be mentioned or remembered. However, the question is not about an individual but the very survival of democracy and the far grander ‘Idea of India’. This is why the next Rashtrapati of India will be significant – actually, very, very significant.
(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.)