New President for new India

Opposition and its intellectuals are losing gravity. So the contest for Rashtrapati Bhavan is a battle of ideologies, it should be won by a person who embraces the task of decolonising the Indian mind.

Written by Dr Rakesh Sinha | Updated: June 16, 2017 6:30 pm
pranab mukherjee, Presidential elections, President of India, Rajnath Singh, Arun Jaitley, M Venkaiah Naidu, Narendra Modi, indian politics, indian express columns No one knows who the next President will be, but the likelihood of a contest based on entrenched positions certainly undermines the prestige of Rashtrapati Bhavan. (Illustration: C R Sasikumar)

The BJP has formed a three-member committee — consisting of senior cabinet ministers, Rajnath Singh, Arun Jaitley and M Venkaiah Naidu — to examine the possibility of a consensus candidate for the President of India. This marks a moral victory for the ruling party against forces in the Opposition, which include political parties and the predominantly “left- liberal” intelligentsia. Their quest for a presidential nominee is not based on the moral significance of this august office, but rather, on vendetta politics. It is no secret that they see the presidential election as an opportunity to “fix” both Narendra Modi and Hindutva politics.

No one knows who the next President will be, but the likelihood of a contest based on entrenched positions certainly undermines the prestige of Rashtrapati Bhavan. It is a truism that no presidential election has been without contest. But political binaries have led to the devaluation of the office. The 1969 election between Neelam Sanjiva Reddy and V.V. Giri was not merely a face-off between two individuals, but between two ideologies on the one hand, and the claim to be genuine heirs of the Indian National Congress, on the other. The election witnessed fierce public debate and unprecedented polarisation in the media. Giri’s victory vindicated Indira Gandhi and her ideology. But it did not add value to the presidency. Rather, it heralded the notion of a rubber stamp president. Since then, the choice of a candidate became a matter of political permutations and combinations, and the election, a game of dice.

This goes against the vision of the founding fathers of the Indian Constitution, who espoused that the President should not be a symbol of partisan politics. The first President of India, Rajendra Prasad, reaffirmed that the office ought not to be a reason for instability in our parliamentary democracy. During the political confrontations between the communist government in Kerala and the Congress party, Prasad made it clear in his letter to Gyanvati Darbar on July 10, 1959, that there had been a “certain misunderstanding regarding the position of the President. Probably, many people feel that the President can intervene and exert influence on one side or the other. That is an incorrect view… I cannot take sides… I have to act on advice and cannot act on my own. Let me keep myself above all these differences… I cannot have any viewpoint which is not for the country as a whole but for any group or party only”.

Whomsoever becomes President, he or she cannot alter the requirements and prerequisites of the office, or the essential features of India’s parliamentary democracy. The office does, however, have the potential to circumvent unnecessary controversies, particularly so in the present context: The rise of an alternative ideology and leadership have yet to be reconciled to by the elites which enjoyed status and privileges and considered themselves authors of the destiny of modern India.

The current situation is a replica of 1922, when, for the first time, nationalists became ministers in the provinces under the Government of India Act 1919. The colonial bureaucracy, along with governors of the provinces, were not merely unsympathetic but also contemptuous of them. In contemporary India, secularist forces are not prepared to relate Hindutva with secular, liberal and democratic principles. They unfailingly cling to their self-made belief that it is communal, intolerant and fascist. They are victims of the ossification which has set in within Left-liberal ideologies, a solidification of the mind which keeps them dogmatic and unable to re-examine their own position.

Therefore, the presidential election assumes significance for more than one reason: The office is not merely a constitutional head. It becomes a decisive player in democratic causality. There are instances of such situations — the fall of the Janata Party government in 1979 made the role of Rashtrapati Bhavan crucial. Yet, there is a definite limit of presidential adventurism, even in times of political crises. Its importance lies in appealing beyond conventional politics or constitutional morality. Free from political compulsions or executive burdens, the President can act as an agent of redefining the idea of India, which is essential to restore the post-colonial identity of the Indian people.

This process was initiated by Rajendra Prasad, which led to a great confrontation with the then-Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Prasad, who confirmed the President should not intervene in executive and legislative business, also unfolded his role in discovering the soul of India. His confrontation with Nehru was not a battle for power, but a battle of ideas to rebuild India.

In his letter to chief ministers on August 1, 1951, Nehru stated that: “It is little realised here what great injuries to our credit abroad is done by the communal organisations of India because they represent just the things which a Western mind dislikes intensely and can not understand. The recent inauguration of [the] Somnath temple with pomp and ceremony created a very bad impression abroad about India and her professions.”

Prasad, differing outright with the PM, wrote to him, saying, “By rising from its ashes again, this temple of Somnath is… proclaiming to the world that no man and no power in the world can destroy that for which people have boundless faith and love in their hearts. Today, our attempt is not to rectify history. Our only aim is to proclaim anew our attachment to the faith, convictions and the values on which our religion has rested since immemorial ages”. India being a civilisational nation can’t be provincialised, its roots go to hundreds and thousands of years celebrating umpteen diversities. The present challenge is to regain India’s identity through contextualising her age-old past.

Prasad’s letter to Gyanvati Darbar on March 26, 1959, unravels the civilisational role of the President of India: “In the age of rationalism, where everything smacking of anything like religion and spiritualism is looked at askance, and when a wave of scepticism is carrying everything before it, at any rate, in the so-called educated and advanced and ‘progressive people’, it will be no small service if anything could be done to catch up with the spirit which made greater India, of which we are all proud, and of which we could get a glimpse… in Cambodia, in Japan and even in Indonesia in ceremonies… not in India… but someday, we shall certainly regain and recover our balance”.

A new President of India has to begin where Prasad left his great ideological legacies. In this regard, the election is not merely a political game of dice, but also a battle of ideologies. The office should be filled not with sectarian or other narrow considerations, but with an intent to privilege it with a philosopher-king. He must represent the soul of India, not a secularist soul. She should address not merely the present but posterity too. Besides constitutional requirements, his words and actions should be indicative of civilisational imperatives.

Rajendra Prasad aptly said, “the country may throw out the ministry, not the president, for views”. It is essential that the presidential candidate is not compromised, or used for the rehabilitation of a tired politician, but rather, is a positive mind who embraces the arduous task of the decolonisation of the Indian mind.The opposition parties and their intellectuals have lost their gravity and are

The opposition parties and their intellectuals have lost their gravity and are now defined more by what they oppose than what they support. Prime Minister Modi has combined the spirit of cultural legacies in his speeches, which are an assertion of a genuine idea of India, in the midst of ceaseless opposition from secularist forces. Therefore, the President’s election would be far more than merely a defeat of the Opposition; it would be the resurrection of the spirit of Rajendra Prasad.

The writer is associate professor, Delhi University, and honorary director, India Policy Foundation
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