By redefining role, interventionist President proves he is no rubber stamp
Is it a constitutional catastrophe or a constitutional crisis? Or is part of the constitutional mechanism, which has accidentally been set in motion to prevent the collapse of democratic institutions? For the first time, the President is seen as the saviour of democratic traditions; sensitive to public emotions in the wake of Cyclone Phailin, he cut short his West Bengal visit during Pujo. On the other hand, the Prime Minister and the Cabinet which advises the President portray themselves as bulldozers of ethical governance. The spotlight has shifted from a non-performing PM to a pro-active President.
For the past few weeks, Pranab Mukherjee, India’s 13th President, has been active in restoring a semblance of balance in the age of confrontationist politics. As the countdown for the crucial General Elections begins, he is formulating his role and reactions to various surprises, which elections may throw up. If his recent actions are any indication, Mukherjee is emerging as the President who doesn’t confine his role to ceremonial talks, but also speaks forcefully. He nudged the UPA leadership to reconsider the ordinance on criminals in politics. He changed his pre-scheduled Bihar programme to avoid being caught in a conflict between the JD(U) and BJP over Narendra Modi’s visit to the state at the same time. Mukherjee’s recent weeklong sojourn to Denmark and Turkey left his signature mark on diplomacy, which led to the signing of many agreements pending for over a decade. Before launching the premier visit by an Indian President to Belgium, he told all ministries to prepare a proper agenda so that his visit doesn’t turn out to be just another junket. Just before he left, the Rashtrapati sprang a surprise on diplomats by almost blaming Pakistan directly for cross-border terrorism by remarking, “terrorists don’t come from heaven”. Of late, Congress managers have been sifting through Mukherjee’s speeches and comments to decipher his frame of mind. They suspect that he is acquiring the role of both a titular Head of State and an invisible influence on the institution of PM. The buzz in the corridors of power is that President is now doing what he would have done as the Prime Minister of a coalition government.
It is too early to define his definitive identity, but Mukherjee seems to possess massive energy to shake and shape the future contours of Indian politics and governance. If Dr APJ Kalam earned the sobriquet of “People’s President”, Mukherjee is carving out his own niche of an interpositionist President who wouldn’t mind asserting his constitutional rights to correct any impropriety in governance and misuse of Constitution. L K Advani, the National Democratic Alliance chairman, embarrassed the President when he gave full credit to Mukherjee and not Rahul Gandhi for the premature demise of the ordinance. Mukherjee seems to be finding ways and means to provide face-saving devices to ruling establishment at the Centre and in the states to bail out of ugly situations. Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar was determined to use the President’s visit as a ploy to prevent crowds from reaching the venue of Modi’s rally on October 27, but Mukherjee understood the trap and decided to return to Rashtrapati Bhavan the same day. Such politically correct moves are indicative of Mukherjee’s attempt to redefine the role of the Head of State, since his purpose is not merely to avoid being stereotyped as a rubber stamp or an activist President.
Mukherjee asserts himself with authority and dignity. Since he is the first President who has held all the important portfolios of defence, finance, commerce and external affairs previously, he knows better than most about how decisions and policies are formalised in a Cabinet system. For example, when the PM sent him the file seeking his approval for the ordinance, Mukherjee didn’t return it after signing on the dotted line, as most of his predecessors would have done. He summoned three important ministers—Parliamentary Affairs Minister Kamal Nath, Law Minister Kapil Sibal and Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde. All of them have been his colleagues in the party for decades. They weren’t expecting his probing questions. Never before has a President asked ministers to produce minutes or records of Cabinet discussions or political confabulations. Mukherjee asked them to produce the proceedings of both the Cabinet meeting and the all-party meet where the decision to promulgate the ordinance was taken. He discomfited them by asking for the reason behind their hurry. They did not return with answers. Instead, the Cabinet approached him to withdraw its request for his approval.
It is quite evident that Mukherjee is arming himself with infallible arguments to face any situation. He is marshalling his facts to disarm those who challenge his formulations. As an avid reader of history, the Rashtrapati has already retrieved the files from the archives concerning the formation of various past coalition governments. Three previous Presidents—R Venkataraman, Shankar Dayal Sharma and K R Narayanan—had taken different positions on how to choose a party to form the government. Mukherjee has found inconsistencies in each. According to Rashtrapati Bhavan watchers, the President has been interacting with numerous legal luminaries, including former chief justices, social activists and even sane political leaders to seek their views on many complex issues concerning security, political stability and economic crises. The limitations of the geographical boundaries of Raisina Hill haven’t deterred its latest incumbent from reaching out to those whose voice is gagged and who are denied access to India’s high and mighty. If Mukherjee continues with his assertive constitutional agenda, he would perhaps earn a place in history as the best prime minister the Congress party failed to choose or spot after Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi.
Prabhuchawla@newindianexpress.com; Follow me on Twitter @PrabhuChawla