A Great Figurehead

Let us hope that India’s new President, like others before, will rise to the office

Written by Chakshu Roy | Published:June 12, 2017 5:51 am
15th Presidential Election, Presidential Election, Pranab Mukherjee, President Pranab Mukherjee, India News, Indian Express, Indian Express News Pranab Mukherjee

The Election Commission has announced the schedule for the 15th Presidential Election. The filing and scrutiny of nominations will take place at the end of the month. Voting will be held on July 17, and the results declared three days later. With this announcement, the clock has started ticking for the race to the office of the President of India. Leaders of opposition parties have met over the last few weeks to discuss fielding a joint candidate for this election. President Pranab Mukherjee, whose term finishes on July 24, has made it clear that he is not interested in a second term. It is likely that the ruling party will announce the name of its candidate next week, after the prime minister returns from his visit to Kazakhstan.

In our constitutional structure, the President occupies a unique position. B.R. Ambedkar explained the role and position of the President during the framing of the Constitution. He specified that it was similar to that of the king under the English Constitution. He said that the President “is the Head of State but not of the executive. He represents the nation but does not rule the nation. He is the symbol of the nation. His place in the administration is that of a ceremonial device of a seal by which the nations decisions are made known.”

Jawaharlal Nehru reiterated this position. He said, “We did not give him any real power but we have made his position one of authority and dignity. The Constitution wants to create neither a real executive nor a mere figurehead, but a head that neither reigns nor governs; it wants to create a great figurehead…”

Our Constitution framers made the President a figurehead. However, their intent of a ceremonial president certainly did not reflect in the oath that every President takes before assuming office. So, while ministers and members of parliament bear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution, our new President will take the oath to “protect and defend the Constitution and the law”.

Over the years, some Presidents have lived up to this promise; others have been found lacking. In the first two decades of our republic, the office of the President mostly remained in the background. Its greatest test came in June, 1975, when President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed was asked to sign the proclamation of internal emergency. His approval of the Emergency around midnight shook the country and people’s trust in the office of the President.

This confidence was eroded further with successive Presidents toeing the political line of the executive. Using the power under Article 356, many democratically elected state governments were dismissed, and President’s Rule imposed in states. President N. Sanjiva Reddy used this provision to impose President’s Rule in nine states in 1980 when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was in power.

However, the implication that Presidents have never defended the Indian Constitution, or vocalised issues facing the country, is also not correct. President Kalam refused to sign a bill preventing the disqualification of MPs and MLAs who were holding an office of profit. By postponing his assent to the Post Office Amendment Bill, President Zail Singh prevented a law from coming into force which would have violated the privacy of personal correspondence. President Pranab Mukherjee has repeatedly called for preserving pluralism and promoting tolerance in the country.

Constitutional and political experts have mixed views about whether the country needs an assertive or agreeable President. The argument is that an assertive president is not in keeping with the scheme of the Constitution; an agreeable one can lower the dignity of the highest office of the country. Over the years, we have had a mix of both.

In the next few days, it will be interesting to see whether political parties go beyond an exercise in tokenism and political expediency while deciding their candidates for this election. Their decision will indicate whether or not they want the next President to surrender to partisan politics. Let’s hope that our next President, like many of his or her predecessors, will rise to the office and stay true to the Constitution.

The writer is head of legislative and civic engagement, PRS Legislative Research

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