The phase of ecstasy is over for both President Droupadi Murmu and the hordes of supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi for having ‘made’ a tribal woman as the Head of the State.
It is now time for both to play their roles as envisaged in the Constitution, which incidentally is referred to by the premier as “India’s only Holy Book”.
In an ideal situation, if India’s second woman President is to take a second look at the words of the oath she has taken, the new head of state cannot but consider, hereafter, being on a side that is different from that one from which Modi is playing the game. The President might have to act on the ‘advice’ of the Council of Ministers on most occasions, but the Prime Minister also has to function under the watchful eye of the Head of the State.
Every new Head of State, at the time of assuming office, pledges “to the best of my ability preserve, protect and defend the Constitution and the law”.
In contrast, Prime Ministers are no custodians of the Constitution but remain only committed to “bear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution of India as by law established.”
There is a significant difference between safeguarding, saving from harm and defending the Constitution and the prime ministerial assurance of being loyal and adhering to the Constitution.
Additionally, the President of India also swears to “devote myself to the service and well-being of the people of India.” Prime ministers are not, by oath of office, expected to act for the welfare of people although this may be politically expedient and obligatory for them.
Prime ministers are bound by their oath of office to “uphold the sovereignty and integrity of India”, “faithfully and conscientiously discharge my duties”, and “do right to all manner of people in accordance with the Constitution and the law, without fear or favour, affection or ill-will.” The Prime Minister also takes the oath of secrecy.
The presidential commitment to devote oneself to the “service and well-being” of every citizen appears at first sight a marginal variance with the prime ministerial undertaking to “do right…without fear or favour, affection or ill will.” But these seemingly irrelevant differences are extremely important insofar as the President vows to “preserve, protect and defend” the Constitution and is obligated to work for the “well-being of the people of India.”
KR Narayanan a role model
Indians owe the realisation of the powers of the President‘s oath to the first Dalit Head of State, KR Narayanan, who could have been the perfect role model for former President Ram Nath Kovind, although not for reasons of his caste identity, and now also for President Murmu.
Narayanan confessed that initially he was unaware of the power his oath conferred on the office. He, like his predecessors, initially considered he had little to do and was just a titular head. But this changed when he had a fresh look at the oath he took to enter his office.
Anyone with knowledge of the Narayanan years between 1997 and 2002 would – and even before as Vice-President from 1992 onward — be aware that he was anything but a ‘rubber stamp’ president.
The only time he had to acquiesce and publicise a decision of the government that he was personally opposed to, was when the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government included in his address to Parliament on February 23, 2000 — he played no role in drafting it and was bound to read it — the announcement that a Commission to review the Constitution had been established and listed it as a ‘success’.
For Narayanan, this was a bit of a snub from the government because days ago, at the function to mark the Indian Republic’s Golden Jubilee, he came down heavily against the move to review the Constitution in an address to Parliament that was penned by him.
He had said: “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.”
This led to a huge controversy because at the same function, Vajpayee spoke on the need for a fresh look at the Constitution. Despite having a different view, Narayanan was forced to announce the decision to establish the Commission.
President as conscience-keeper
Actually, Narayanan was unambiguous in his understanding of the “President (as) a working President, not an executive President, but a working President, and working within the four corners of the Constitution.”
He was discerning in his opinion that the Head of State had to act as the government’s “conscience-keeper”. He recognised that it was important to emphasise, “a subtle influence of the office of the President on the executive and the other arms of the government and on the public as a whole”.
Narayanan was also of the view that “there must be some equation between the people and the President.” He drew strength to his office from the first Head of State, Rajendra Prasad, who observed that “people do look upon” the President as someone with “authority in the governance of the country”.
This influence, Prasad said, could be justified only “by tendering such advice and giving such suggestions as he considers necessary.”
President as Head of Parliament
In his farewell address as India’s 14th President, Kovind referred to Article 79 of the Constitution. He said: “Article 79 of our Constitution provides for a Parliament consisting of the President and the two Houses. In keeping with this constitutional provision and adding my sentiment to it, I look at the President as an integral part of the Parliamentary family.”
This Article specifies: “There shall be a Parliament for the Union which shall consist of the President and two Houses…”
It needs to be recalled that the Constituent Assembly passed this Article “without amendments”, but after due debate on January 3, 1949. During the discussion, economist and advocate KT Shah who later contested against Rajendra Prasad in India’s first presidential election, moved an amendment to “delete President” from the draft Article.
Shah argued that making the President the de facto head of Parliament was an instance of “unnecessary imitation of the British system”. He asserted that the “President is merely an ornamental head of the nation and should not be an integral part of the legislature.”
Members disagreed and eventually adopted Article 79 after accepting that the “Indian Constitution gave prominence to the President — he/she was the Executive Head of the nation.” Consequently, it was “important to include President in the legislature.”
Post the election of Kovind in 2017, has the Presidential office again (recall Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed’s tenure) assumed the characteristic of an ornamental head?
Kovind cited Article 79 in his last address as President to Parliament but failed to insulate that institution from the executive.
Crossing the line
The spirit of Article 79 was violated at least twice, first when Modi laid the foundation of the new Parliament building on December 10, 2020 and again very recently, when he unveiled the contentious statue of India’s national emblem on top of the new Parliament building on July 11.
The two events underscored near-complete hegemony the Executive has established over the Legislature and even then President did not step in to discreetly intimate the government that the Office of the Prime Minister has no function in the functioning and management of Parliament.
While the President’s office has no role in day-to-day decision making process, on this occasion, he could have intervened either by intimating Lok Sabha Speaker of the inappropriateness of inviting the Prime Minister for performing the ground breaking ceremony and later to unveil the giant lions.
He could have even conveyed his disagreement with the Prime Minister personally at his decision to perform the religious ceremony of both occasions.
Merely saying that the President is an “integral part of the Parliamentary family,” is not enough. She or he must act like one, especially when the Executive is attempting to overreach.
The former President was also not known to have given suggestions on matters when the need arose. There were occasions when many felt that Kovind remained beholden to the Prime Minister for having elevated him to the Rashtrapati Bhavan.
Kovind made a telling statement that underscored gratitude for his selection in June at a function in his ancestral village: “The people of this state feel proud that a person from the state has been given the top constitutional post of the country and the credit for that goes to you, Prime Minister,” he said.
With her tenure at the start line, President Murmu has to choose which former President should be her role model, someone like Narayanan or Kovind.
(The writer is a NCR-based author and journalist. His books include The Demolition and the Verdict: Ayodhya and the Project to Reconfigure India, The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right and Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times. He tweets at @NilanjanUdwin)
(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not reflect the views of The Federal)