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Tuesday, July 17, 2018

The President’s wisdom

Governments must respect the dignity of the office, and be seen to do so too

Written by S.N. Sahu | Updated: March 2, 2018 10:16:59 am
The President’s wisdom The request by the HRD ministry for the President to withdraw his approval to the appointment of the VC of Viswa Bharati.

In an extraordinary and unprecedented move, the human resource development (HRD) ministry requested the President of India to withdraw his approval to the appointment of Swapan Kumar Datta as the vice-chancellor (VC) of Viswa Bharati University out of the list of names sent by it. The President, as the head of state, occupies an exalted place and the incumbent of the post is set above all the other organs of administration and governance. A proposal, before it is sent to the President, is vetted thoroughly and the decision to accord it approval is taken by the President based on law, jurisprudence and settled convention. After a proposal is sent by the government, the decision to approve it is entirely left to the wisdom of the President.

Therefore, the request by the HRD ministry for the President to withdraw his approval to the appointment of the VC of Viswa Bharati — and his acceptance of the request — has become a matter of discussion in public domain. The report on the President giving in to the government (IE, February 22), is not in consonance with the majesty and esteem of the head of the state, which in terms of political philosophy, is more expansive and broad than of the head of the government. The withdrawal of approval has created a new precedent which requires deep reflection.

In the pattern of the Westminster model, where the British monarch has the right to be consulted and to advice and warn ministers, the President of India has the responsibility to advise and warn the ministers. The reverse process, of receiving advice by the minister to rescind a proposal which he has approved, is not in keeping with that tradition.

Some precedents from the past throw light on the matter.

Prime Minister I K Gujral’s government had sent a proposal to then President K R Narayanan for the imposition of President’s Rule in Uttar Pradesh by dismissing the Kalyan Singh government. The grounds were that there was breakdown of the constitutional order in the state because of violence inside the Assembly and the resultant disruption of the proceedings of the House. Narayanan returned the proposal for reconsideration by the Union government. This was unprecedented. If the Union cabinet had sent back the same proposal to the President, as per the Constitution, he would have had no alternative but to approve it. But the government did not send back the proposal for reconsideration — it decided to honour the wisdom behind the President’s decision. This underlined the government’s deference and regard for the considered decision of the President. It constituted a shining example of the triumph of the highest office in the land, which commanded respect and admiration for reasoned and impartial decisions, free from the review and interference by the government.

When the NDA government headed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee decided to review the Constitution, it was President Narayanan who put a sharp question in his speech delivered on January 27, 2001, on the occasion of the golden jubilee of our Republic. He asked, “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.” Narayanan asked the question even though the NDA government had inserted, in the President’s speech to Parliament, that the government would review the Constitution. Narayanan read out that speech in toto. Yet he departed from the stand and asked that the searchlight be turned inward. That statement changed the government’s decision — it set up a commission not to review the Constitution but to review the working of the Constitution. The Vajpayee government never approached President Narayanan to say that he had read out a speech to the Parliament to review the Constitution and should reconsider his subsequent pronouncement.

Again, during the Vajpayee-led government’s tenure, when President K R Narayanan proposed shehnai maestro Bismillah Khan’s name for the Bharat Ratna, the then PM agreed to the suggestion but also proposed V D Savarkar’s name. Narayanan did not act on the proposal for quite some time. It spoke to Vajpayee’s greatness that he never reminded Narayanan about his proposal nor did he advise him to act on it in a favourable manner. The grace and decency displayed by Vajpayee took into account the dignity of the office of the President of India. Eventually, Bismillah Khan was conferred the highest civilian honour.

It is the responsibility of the occupants of the high offices to discharge their duties not only on the basis of law and jurisprudence but also based on the values and ethics which form the bedrock of their very existence. President Rajendra Prasad, on assuming office, had said that his duty was to give his advice and opinion before a decision is taken by the government. Once the decision is taken, he would not interfere with it. The precedent set by him is of abiding significance.

The writer served as OSD and press secretary to President K R Narayanan. Views are personal

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