Can Kovind live up to his true role as Prez?

President Kovind, in his conduct, possibly needs reminding that he took an oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution and the law .

A cartoon by Abu Abraham during the 1975-77 Emergency depicted then President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed sitting in a bathtub filled to the brim with water and in an obvious stage of undress. He was shown as turning back and reaching to an outstretched hand bedecked in a formal suit and shirt — obviously someone who is wearing a Rashtrapati Bhavan uniform. The hand was holding a piece of paper which, after signing, Ahmed is returning along with the pen provided to him. The text, attributed to Ahmed, says it all: “If there are any more ordinances, just ask them to wait.”

At a time when the media was throttled, only brave cartoonists had their way. Abraham’s cartoon was a comment on the manner in which Indira Gandhi acted late at night and forced President Ahmed to sign the ordinance proclaiming the Emergency well past working hours. The phrase “rubber stamp” President owes much of its origin to Ahmed’s blind loyalty to Mrs Gandhi and his decision to sign the proclamation without demur or at least asking the PM to reconsider if such an unprecedented step was indeed warranted.

The process of lifting President’s Rule in Maharashtra to pave the way for the BJP’s Devendra Fadnavis to be sworn in for the second time despite not having the numbers with him showed that constitutional norms were bypassed for political considerations. At least three institutions which are expected to function within the framework of the law and follow precedents did not do so — first, the governor, Bhagat Singh Koshyari; second, the Prime Minister’s Office and, finally, President Ram Nath Kovind. The fact that that the gazette notification ending Central rule in the state was digitally signed by the Union home secretary at 5.47 am meant that the system had been subverted once again — the pre-dawn signature showed that the official machinery was at work through the night.

The nation’s constitutional head didn’t satisfy himself of the “emergency” that required the PMO to send the recommendation to Mr Kovind at a time when he would either have been sleeping or had barely woken up. The President, sadly, simply signed on the dotted line without satisfying himself about the tearing hurry that necessitated not summoning a Cabinet meeting to ratify the Prime Minister’s decision to lift Central rule and pave the way for the governor to invite Mr Fadnavis to assume charge as chief minister. With the office of the President and the PMO already compromised, the last check could have been put by Mr Koshyari. He could have scrutinised Mr Fadnavis’ claims and evaluate if Ajit Pawar actually had the backing of the MLAs of the NCP. The governor, after all, had been a politician in the politically turbulent state of Uttarakhand and been chief minister under trying circumstances, and is well-versed in the art of horse-trading which goes on in the name of government formation after a hung verdict. Undoubtedly, the governor too failed to do adequate homework and failed in his constitutional duties.

This is the second instance after the re-election of this government in May that President Kovind acted more like a former BJP leader and less as the nation’s constitutional head. In August, the President enabled the government overnight make massive constitutional alterations in the status of Jammu and Kashmir. It was argued that Mr Kovind could have asked the government to be either reconsider its decision or be more consultative in its approach. Instead, he allowed the Prime Minister’s interaction with him to be a mere “item” listed in the to-do list, captured by an observant photographer who spotted home minister Amit Shah carrying papers in a manner that they could be read at close quarters.
The Constitution of India vests the President with the duty “to aid and advise” (Article 74) the Cabinet. Although it expects him to use authority and influence under certain circumstances, the actual decision-making process is left with the Cabinet. The President, as well as the governors, are the main protectors of the Constitution. Yet another cartoon drawn by cartoonist Ashok Dongre during the Emergency depicted India Gandhi with a leader of the CPI, her then ally, by her side. She is looking with exasperation at a huge copy of the Constitution, and the CPI leader’s advice is simple: “Liquidate it”. In 1998, shortly after he became Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee initiated an exercise to review the Constitution. But the cascade of reservations from multiple quarters, including President K.R. Narayanan, forced conversion of the initiative into a simple assessment of the Constitution's functioning. Yet, the episode added to doubts over the commitment of the BJP and its associates to uphold the document in its present form.

President Kovind, in his conduct, possibly needs reminding that he took an oath to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution and the law”. In contrast, the Prime Minister is only committed to “bear true faith and allegiance” to the Constitution. In many ways, K.R. Narayanan, our first dalit head of state, is the perfect role model for any future President. He once confessed that initially he was unaware of the power his oath conferred on his office. Like his predecessors, he considered that there was little to do and he was a titular head. After assuming office, he understood the weight of the oath and realised that a President could do a lot if he opted to follow his pledge in letter and spirit. The operative part was: “I will devote myself to the service and well-being of the people of India.” Narayanan, and to a great extent A.P.J. Abdul Kalam too, used that power to act like a “working President”.

Narayanan had stated that his post could be “used with a philosophy of indirect approach”. He continued that were “one or two things” that could be done directly “in very critical times”. The President, he felt, could exert “indirect influence” on affairs of state and believed “there must be some equation between the people and the President”. Even Dr Rajendra Prasad observed that “people do look upon” the President as someone with “authority in the governance of the country”. This influence could be justified only “by tendering such advice and giving such suggestions as he considers necessary”. It is for Mr Kovind to decide if he has done any of these or has he become a President in the tradition which Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed set.

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