May we have reviews & reforms of protocols & practices to be followed at Rashtrapati Bhavan and elsewhere? (2009)

The Hon’ble President of India has invited you to join the Council of Ministers and has invited you to Rashtrapati Bhavan to be sworn in by an oath she shall administer. You are awaiting your name to be called. Your name is called and what do you do? You stand up and do a namaste to the PM and then walk a bit to do another namaste to Sonia Gandhi sitting in the audience opposite the President, and then you move towards the microphone ignoring or turning your back on the President herself and then you suddenly remember where you are and realize it is the President who has invited you and shall be administering your oath so you turn around and do a small namaste to her smiling apologetically for having made her an afterthought, and then you go about taking your oath, and then you perhaps do another namaste or two to the President more deeply because you want to make up for having forgotten her last time and finally you feel so happy and pleased with yourself you do another big namaste to Sonia Gandhi in the audience and finally get back to your seat! Phew!

Such was how several of Dr Singh’s new and senior-most cabinet members behaved yesterday at their swearing-in. Dr Singh himself walked straight to the President and did a very gracious bow to her before taking his oath, though on the way back he may have started the ball rolling by doing an exceptionally glad namaste to Sonia Gandhi sitting in the audience. AK Antony was the first and the most senior on the list who most blatantly ignored the President herself initially and turned his back on her momentarily before correcting himself, though he did not fail to do an initial namaste to Shrimati Gandhi. By contrast, Sharad Pawar may have got the whole thing right by walking straight to the President and doing a proper namaste, followed by his oath fluently spoken in Hindi followed by a small acknowledgment of the audience as a whole before returning to his seat.

But in half a dozen cases it all seemed a little sloppy, and even though the President seemed game and sportsmanlike about it, a discourtesy was noticeable to her high office as Head of State which needs to be apologized for and corrected. After all, these were the senior-most ministers, what might lesser ministers do next week?

In fact, a strong case might exist for a rational review nationwide of all such practices and protocols in Delhi and the State capitals, some of which have become so ossified from ancient times that they look bizarre today. Why do we have to have such an elaborate ceremony at all for a mere swearing in, which gets repeated too in each of the states with the Governors and State Governments? Yes perhaps the Head of State did administer the oath to the PM back in 1947 but it is not really necessary for the Head of State to do so now – it could be, for example, the Chief Justice of India who does so, at least to the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister could then himself/herself administer the oath to everyone else in his/her Cabinet, while someone, even the Cabinet Secretary perhaps, could administer the oath to everyone else. The oath itself is what is important, not so much the status of the person administering it. There need not be any such elaborate ceremony at all in Rashtrapati Bhavan that risks the dignity of the President like this and spends everyone’s time.

(And did anyone else notice the private sector lobbyists and public sector fixers seated in the audience? Precisely what were they doing there? Is this just another New Delhi social occasion for people to put on a show of showing their presence?)

For that matter, why was the National Anthem apparently played twice not by any live or noticeable orchestra or band but as a rather grainy recording? It is all a bit depressing when it should have been uplifting. Imagine instead some splendid soprano or tenor leading the singing of the Anthem in that splendid Hall accompanied by a first-class band.

I have long thought we need a National Commission to review all such matters and much more.

It would need to start with the 15th August Red Fort speech by the PM. 15th August was a date chosen by Mountbatten and its auspiciousness was diminished by all the bloodshed that flowed with it. It has become quite unseemly in recent decades to hear our PMs read out party-slogans or government propaganda statements from behind a bullet-proof barrier there. If I was a perceptive school-child being compelled to wait for hours in front of the Red Fort on a hot and muggy August morning to hear such dreary stuff, I might be justifiably upset, and of course many schoolchildren faint every year from exhaustion at being forced to do such things across the country. My own recommendation would be that August 15 be renamed Martyrs’ Day and be a solemn holiday marked only by a long five-minute nationwide silence, say at noon, in memory of all those who have died for India to be what it is today.

Then there is 26 January, going all the way to the “Beating of the Retreat”. Why on earth do we feel a need in this modern age to have such a display in the capital city once a year? Marching bands and parades and floats and fireworks can be great fun for all citizens but they can be and should be spread year-round all across the country’s many cities and towns, and the occasion need not be made a pompous one only in Delhi once a year (with some pale imitations in the State capitals). Republic Day can be a happy holiday for everyone in January when the weather is splendid around the country, with fireworks and fun for everyone, not merely New Delhi’s already delusional Ruling Class.

Then there is the oh-so-common ceremony all over the country from Parliament downwards of standing before the portrait or statue of someone long dead and throwing flowers at it along with a namaste (or in the case of communists, a clenched-fist Black Panther salute). Have we so lost our secular ethos that we do not realize that, for example, a Muslim or Jewish believer might find throwing flowers and doing namaste to a portrait something awkward to do? Both Ariel Sharon and Pervez Musharraf seemed to feel awkward when we took them to the Mahatma Gandhi memorial and said right, now, this is what we expect you to do, throw flowers and walk around it in this manner… it is not enough for you as a visiting dignitary to merely place a bouquet… ! We need to chill out a bit about all this ritualism.

And so it goes. To their considerable credit, neither Nehru nor Indira or Rajiv stood on ceremony much, and the same seems to apply to Sonia Gandhi and her children. The time may be opportune for all such matters to be reviewed calmly and soberly by a National Commission– in the meantime, the PM needs to send a small apology to the President for any unintended discourtesy from his Council of Ministers that may have occurred yesterday or at least a promise that it will not get repeated.

Subroto Roy, Kolkata

Postscript: Then there is the matter of Presidents, Prime Ministers, Governors, Chief Ministers et al taking salutes from the uniformed armed forces  or the paramilitary — if you are not yourself a commissioned officer or have never been one, do not respond to a salute from uniformed men and women by saluting or trying to salute them back yourself.  What is required is instead to perhaps stand to attention when they salute you, and perhaps bow your head slightly to acknowledge their salute.   Salutes are exchanged only within the uniformed services.  We instead have civilian leaders seeming to greatly enjoying trying to return salutes themselves….

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