After the Verdict: Why the Executive Needed a Vote of Confidence

AFTER THE VERDICT

By Subroto Roy

First published The Statesman, October 20 2005, Editorial Page Special Article, http://www.thestatesman.net

The last and only time a Head of State of India “resigned” was when Edward VIII (uncle of the present Queen of England) abdicated in 1936 because he wished to marry Mrs Wallis Simpson, a twice-divorced American, and the British Government under Stanley Baldwin felt this was unacceptable to the public and told him so. To his eternal credit, Edward VIII chose true love over the vainglorious trappings of a constitutional monarchy, gave up the kingship, and went with his new wife into a quiet voluntary life-exile in France as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. India’s Presidents cannot act in state except upon advice of the Cabinet. That means they cannot even resign from office except upon advice of the Cabinet. A President may tragically die in office in which case the Vice-President would become the acting Head of State but there is no provision or precedent in India for a President to be made to resign except for Edward VIII’s abdication.

Richard Nixon resigned the office of the President of the United States in 1974 and more recently William Jefferson Clinton was brought under a lot of pressure to do so by the legislative impeachment proceedings against him. Nixon resigned (which made Gerald Ford President) because it had become impossible for him to stay in office having been proved to have lied to the people, and Clinton managed to stay on by the skin of his teeth for similar misdeeds. But the American system is different because the Head of State and Head of Government are united in the person of the President.

In our system, the Head of State embodies the sovereignty of India and does nothing more. Mountbatten as the first Governor-General imagined himself much more than that and caused damage to the subcontinent’s polity which has still to be repaired. But the first four Indian Heads of State, C. Rajagopalachari, Dr Rajendra Prasad, Dr S. Radhakrishnan, and Dr Zakir Hussain, were exemplary role-models. Unfortunately since their time the office of the President has suffered some of the shocks too that have been suffered by almost all our institutions. For example, retired Presidents really should vanish most gracefully into quietude to write their memoirs and help raise their grandchildren, yet we have had a former President say that an award received after retirement as President has been his most prized. It is not logically possible for such a thing to happen, since to become President of India is the ultimate honour for any citizen of our country. We elect someone among us to be a constitutional monarch for a period of five years and call that person President. Even if a former Indian President should receive the Nobel Peace Prize afterwards it would not mean his/her having embodied the sovereignty of our Republic was not the ultimate honour.

In our constitutional law, our Head of State cannot choose to resign any more than the sovereignty of India can be made to momentarily come to an end. If, to construct a hypothetical case, a President of India while in office became, heavens forbid, physically or mentally incapable of carrying out the duties of the office, the Government of India as represented by the Union Cabinet may well look to the Vice-President to fulfil the role of the Head of State temporarily but there would be no provision for the President to be made to demit office. The only precedent is that of Edward VIII where his personal love for Mrs Simpson compelled his abdication upon the advice of the Prime Minister.

Bringing ourselves back to Bihar, the Honourable Supreme Court’s finding of unconstitutionality is of grave import. On the positive side, what it indicates yet again is that India’s political institutions, no matter how battered and bloody they become by our self-inflicted wounds, still do work.

Furthermore, for the Honourable Court to have allowed the elections to go forward indicates how fine is the quality of our justice, for the Court has allowed the people of Bihar to speak again, and of course Mr Nitish Kumar and friends have been free to use at the hustings the Court’s finding in their favour. Certainly heads should roll and be seen to roll for all this. The Governor should have gone immediately but has not only not done so, he has let it be known that he was acting under orders himself. If so, the least that should happen is that the party-functionary responsible for this should be sacked.

For some press-commentators to demand that Sonia Gandhi should replace Dr Manmohan Singh reveals an appalling ignorance of constitutional norms; this is not a matter of a “High Command” replacing one acolyte by another as chief minister somewhere – if a Prime Minister resigns, so does the entire Cabinet he has appointed, and a new Government has to be sought to be formed. At the same time it is less than candid for the Leader of the Opposition to demand via the television cameras that the Prime Minister should resign, since the Opposition knows fully well that there is an institution called Parliament which can express its lack of confidence in a Government. And of course it also remains open for the Prime Minister himself to go to Parliament and seek to renew its confidence in his Government when the public confidence has thus come to be shaken.

In fact, the right course of action for the President is to summon the Prime Minister and say something like: “It would appear the Judicial Branch of the Government of India has found the Executive Branch to have breached the Constitution. Reference must now be made to the Legislative Branch, namely, to Parliament, to see if it still has confidence in the Executive. Please ask for a Vote of Confidence in the Lok Sabha as soon as possible.” Of course, Dr Manmohan Singh has been the first Prime Minister in Commonwealth history since Salisbury who has not been himself a member of the Lower House. Curzon had wished to be British prime minister after returning from India but was passed over in 1922 in favour of Baldwin in a decisive demonstration that a prime minister must be a member of the Lower House. That is why Alec Douglas-Home stopped being a member of the House of Lords in order to become British PM in 1963-64. India in the last thirty years has seen parliamentary traditions at the Union and State levels being ruinously weakened (or not even allowed to develop) being replaced all too frequently either by street-fighting or by discretionary bureaucratic decision-making by committee. The present moment is an opportunity for the rot to be stemmed. It may be too optimistic though to believe that it will be taken.

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