Simplicity, Genuine Achievement Are Desirable; Political Ambition Is Not
by Subroto Roy
First published in The Statesman, Editorial Page, Special Article, May 8 2007
To become President of the Indian Republic is to become our Head of State, and we may wish to see our President possess certain kinds of qualities of character and achievement. Unlike the USA, France and Russia but like Britain, Germany and Japan, our Head of State is not our Head of Government, who is the Prime Minister. Unlike Britain and Japan but like Germany, our Head of State is someone we get to choose and we do not have to depend on aristocratic hereditary chances.
Naked political ambition, whether overtly or covertly manifested, may be expected and can be tolerated in the drive to becoming a Prime Minister or a Chief Minister. But it is not a quality we would find endearing or salubrious in a President of India. One former President quite meticulously planned his career so as to make him a possible choice, and then asserted his “right” to the job and allowed a lobbying process to take over. Then too, becoming President is the highest possible honour for an Indian citizen ~ there can be nothing higher; no Bharat Ratna, no Nobel Prize or anything else can surpass having embodied the sovereignty of India as a free democratic republic. Yet one former President received a private award after leaving office and declared it to have been his highest honour ~ again, not an endearing or salubrious thing to have done.
We may almost say that the expressed wish or desire to become President of India should be almost a disqualification for the job. In the USA, a childhood ambition to grow up to be President is an admirable thing; in India it is not.
Secondly, looking to the practical aspects of the job, these are twofold: acting as the Head of State of the Union of India as well as supervising the Presidential emissaries to our more than two dozen States, namely, the Governors. In a different and more modern nomenclature, the idea of a Governor would have been dispensed with as a British-era anachronism, and instead we would have had a Vice President for the Union of India and a Vice President for each of the States, forming an indirectly elected college of high and eminent dignitaries with fixed terms of office. So instead of a Governor of UP or Governor of Karnataka, we would have had a Vice President for UP and a Vice President for Karnataka, besides a Vice President of the Union of India who would chair the Upper House of Parliament.
This may have served to highlight the fact that the President is the constitutional Head of State both at the Union and in each of the States. His/her deputies act solely in his/her name, which, after all, is in the name of the sovereign people of India as expressed in their Constitution.
Plainly, we need a President who is wholly familiar with India’s Constitution, not merely as a written document but in its full working and vitality. A President does have legal advisers but there is ultimately no substitute for having achieved adequate political wisdom firsthand in knowing when advice is good or bad. Someone who has visibly or wilfully subverted constitutional norms of jurisprudence somewhere or other along the line may be assumed not to have that kind of wisdom.
For example, we have had elected chief ministers dismissed for no good reason in the past, while we now have the first prime minister anywhere since Salisbury in 19th Century Britain who does not command a majority in the Lower House of Parliament. Also, many life-long “career politicians” have spent their lives organising this or that political party, giving speeches at mass rallies, undermining their opponents, backing their friends, being involved in all the ugliness of day-to-day politics. Such persons would not have transcended their own pasts sufficiently to be able to earn the kind of public confidence and respect that is necessary in our President. Nor is our Presidency a place to carry on any kind of explicit personal agenda or political hobby or ideology.
Then, too, we could do with a President who does not feel any great urge for foreign travel or pomp and circumstance. India’s Foreign Minister and Foreign Trade Minister may have need to run around the globe but hardly anyone else in our Government needs to be in fact travelling abroad, not even the Prime Minister, especially when the domestic political and economic and jurisprudential agenda of our country is so large and yet unfulfilled.
Our Presidential term lasts sixty months: if, say, 20 months in total are devoted to the Union’s matters and another 30 months to our more than two dozen States and Union Territories, that would leave a month’s vacation for each of five years, with a full five months in hand for exigencies. How should the President allocate all that time? Plainly, the answer is that we expect him/her to be using moral suasion and sheer physical presence in defending the Constitution and the ordinary anonymous individual citizen against whatever misfortune may befall them, whether from natural calamity or evil behaviour by the State.
When was the last time we had a President who travelled by AC 2-tier and chatted normally with his fellow citizen-travellers? Or someone who spent not just a flying visit of a few hours to Mizoram or Tripura but who actually set up camp there at the Raj Bhavans for several weeks and came to know firsthand what was going on and what the Indian Union as a whole may do to help?
Have we ever had a President who requested an end to all the bands playing and marching around in front of a few boring New Delhi people once a year, and instead sent those marching bands to play on Sunday mornings all year long ~ along a Marine Drive or Chowringhee or a Mahatma Gandhi Road in this or that city or small town or other, for the enjoyment and entertainment of the common Indian family?
The President is not the Head of Government, and must at all times remember that he/she is to be guided by Cabinet advice in substantive political matters, which have mainly to do with the raising and spending of public resources. But there are a thousand parliamentary and procedural things wrong at present with our Governments and Oppositions both at the Union and the States, and the President of India may be the only person with the moral stature, dignity and gravity to try at least to nudge things in the right direction before they get any worse. The constitutional Head of State in our system has, in the words of Walter Bagehot, the right to be consulted, the right to encourage and the right to warn. Someone needs to be a person of character and achievement and not a hollow empty dummy to be able to exercise such rights appropriately.
What is needed overall is someone with the practical wisdom and political virtue recommended by Aristotelian, Confucian, Buddhist and other cultures ~ or at least without obvious political ignorance or political vices. Balzac said the genius resembles everyone and no one resembles him. India needs a President and Vice-Presidents who can talk with crowds and walk with kings without losing sobriety ~ who have earned the country’s respect through worthwhile achievement yet have been without overt or covert political ambition.
Just a correction concerning the French president.
The French president is not the head of the French government, this is the role of the Prime Minister who is in turn nominated by the President. While it is fair to say that the French president has quite a lot of power, he is still forbidden to address the French Parliament and if the majority of the MPs are not from his own political side, a “cohabitation” happens and his role is considerably reduced.
I am most grateful to my friend Mr Florian Bay for this clarification. France does seem an intermediate case, where the Prime Minister has less political power than other Heads of Government and the President has more political power than other Heads of State.
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