|Against the backdrop of a photograph of Indira Gandhi, Pranab Mukherjee allows himself a wide smile. Well-wishers made a beeline for his home after the presidential poll result was announced on Sunday. (PTI picture)
New Delhi, July 22: Minutes after his landslide victory today, President-elect Pranab Mukherjee said: “Now I have been entrusted with the responsibility to protect, defend and preserve the Constitution. I will try to justify in a modest way as I can to be trustworthy.”
Such soaring rhetoric goes well with the exalted post he will formally assume on Wednesday at 11am.
It also served to inspire an almost unreasonable degree of hope among non-Congress parties, primarily about a new era of presidential activism that would demolish the notion that the post is truly ceremonial and suited best for rubber-stamps.
The expectation emanates from the perception of an uneasy relationship Mukherjee had with the first family of the Congress, further accentuated by Sonia Gandhi’s decision to make Manmohan Singh the Prime Minister in 2004 and 2009. Opinion leaders in politics and outside still believe Sonia picked Mukherjee for President under duress, although insiders claim that the phase of trust-deficit had long been over.
But there is no denying that most leaders in non-Congress formulations, including the BJP that opposed him, are hoping against hope that Mukherjee’s tenure would witness more “interesting times” than that of Pratibha Patil. It is another matter that Mukherjee’s rebellious instincts are overrated and his tendency to stick to the rulebook is well documented.
Mukherjee has an excellent rapport with leaders in other parties but Congress colleagues refuse to believe he will ever do anything to harm the interests of the party that brought him to Rashtrapati Bhavan, an address he so desperately wanted.
But they are not sure if he will go out of his way to help the party leadership like some other Presidents have done, bringing disrepute to the office.
While Opposition leaders will be happy if Mukherjee remains objective, expectations about an unforeseen phase of presidential activism are so high that a leader of the Nationalist Congress Party, currently at loggerheads with the Congress, jubilantly told The Telegraph: “Wait, Indian politics will now enter a very interesting phase. Mukherjee won’t be a rubber stamp.”
Most Raj Bhavans and Rashtrapati Bhavan under some Presidents have been burial grounds for constitutional morality in the past.
Although the first President, Rajendra Prasad, demonstrated streaks of activism and sought to re-open the chapter of presidential powers already settled by the Constituent Assembly, there have been Presidents like Giani Zail Singh, who explored the possibility of dismissing Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi because of personal conflicts, and later A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, who almost strayed into a misadventure possibly because he was not aware of the finer points.
The example of President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed signing at midnight a proclamation for Emergency without the approval of the Union cabinet also stands out.
Mukherjee may not have had the opportunity yet to exhibit as high an intellectual calibre as Rajendra Prasad or S. Radhakrishnan but he does embody the best and the worst of the Congress. If he understands the value of consensual politics and the middle path, he has also been party to the intrigues and conspiracies of the Congress, which wantonly used the office of governor for partisan political ends. Mukherjee never spoke up against such constitutional improprieties.
Mukherjee belongs to a genre of politicians who laid maximum emphasis on leadership and too little on institutions, as witnessed during the Indira era, and survived because of the high command’s patronage, not on the strength of mass support.
He later bloomed in an atmosphere in which the tendency to use political power as a means of personal aggrandisement was at its peak and politics of posturing, compromises and betrayals had become the norm.
Mukherjee came to the forefront of national politics when the Congress system was in moral decline, regional forces were asserting themselves and the polity was deeply fragmented. The next general election may throw up a more fractured verdict, bringing Mukherjee into a vital role as he will have to decide which model to follow for the installation of the government.
While Shankar Dayal Sharma committed the mistake of inviting the BJP to form the government that fell in 13 days, M.K. Narayanan set a precedent of asking for letters of support to ensure stability of the regime.
But the Opposition’s hope that Mukherjee will follow Narayanan’s model of “working President” and take activism to a new level can also be misplaced as he likes to follow Nehruvian principles.
Nehru had said: “Power really resided in the ministry and in the legislature, not in the President as such. At the same time, we did not want to make the President a mere figurehead. We did not give him the real power but we have made his position one of authority and dignity.”
That school of thought believes the President can act only on the advice of the council of ministers and does not have the right to criticise the government publicly, although he can guide or warn the Prime Minister tacitly.
Mukherjee knows the system too well to create scope for intervention if he so desires, creating problems for the government of the day, something the outgoing President chose not to do.
Article 78 of the Constitution says: “The President must be kept informed by the Prime Minister about the affairs of administration and proposals for legislation including all decisions of the cabinet from time to time. He must be supplied with such other information by the Prime Minister about administration of the country as he might call for. He can ask the Prime Minister to submit the decision of any minister for consideration of council of ministers in order to have the decisions of the cabinet.”
This enables Mukherjee to even ask for details of deliberations by the group of ministers. However, the Union cabinet had collectively written to former President Zail Singh when he sought information on the functioning of some ministries, particularly in relation to Bofors. That had escalated the conflict.
There have been several other examples of such presidential intervention, which fall in the grey area.
In 1999, Narayanan summoned three service chiefs to discuss the Kargil conflict in the absence of the defence minister. He also summoned the CMD of Indian Airlines and sought a briefing on the financial restructuring plan.
The President is not supposed to call civil servants, although a minister can ask a bureaucrat to brief him on a particular issue.
In 2006, Kalam returned the office of profit bill and sought an assurance from Manmohan Singh for review by a committee before giving assent despite the reconsideration by the cabinet.
In 2004, Kalam asked Atal Bihari Vajpayee to resign on the ground that it would be wrong for the government to continue in office while elections were being held. A firm Vajpayee, however, sent his law minister to brief the President on the basics of the constitutional scheme.
In 2005, Kalam asked Parliament to lay down a “comprehensive policy” on mercy petitions and later also tried to alter the contours of the Right to Information Act.
Kalam had also expressed the desire to address legislators regularly on his development model and monitor schemes in districts through a web network. But Vajpayee declined, telling him that a parallel governance mechanism cannot be created.
Mukherjee is too mature to indulge in such acts. But there are provisions that allow the President to send his opinion to Parliament in times of peril, although no Prime Minister would like it.
The recent trend of Presidents meeting Opposition delegations and protesters to take memorandums can also be misused. Although the President is not supposed to give them his opinion, he can seek the Prime Minister’s or write to the Supreme Court for its opinion.
“What will happen if Mukherjee forwards a serious complaint against any Congress leader for action?” asked a BJP leader, while explaining the extent of the unfettered powers of the President.
The question is whether a conservative Mukherjee believes in the flawed concept of unfettered power.