Wednesday, November 15, 2006

You don’t need to be a rocket scientist..... be the president of India.

(Apologies for a rare “political” post on this blog).

As is often the case, conversations with friends (particularly Indian friends) tend to drift towards some discussion of politics. And it is quite common to end up discussing the present president of India, Dr. Abdul Kalam. Now, many of my friends think it’s wonderful that a prominent scientist is the head of the nation. They’re taken in by his grand visions of the nation, and his optimistic books on India’s future. But most also are disappointed with his stint as president. They say he’s too naïve and trusting to be president, or conclude that the president of India has no real power, is just a rubber seal of approval, and all the power lies with the elected prime minister and his/her cabinet.

But really, that is only partially true. Actually, the president does have substantial power, and I’ve always held that you don’t need to be a great scholar (or, in this case, a rocket scientist) to be president. All you need are three attributes: a strong, independent, non-partisan mind, a good understanding of constitutional law and the powers of the president, and the courage to see things through. Unfortunately, the Dr. Kalam hasn’t demonstrated any of these qualities. He’s undoubtedly learned, honest, dedicated, has a vision and loves his country, but that alone isn’t enough.

There are (in my mind) three or four occasions when the president of India does have a lot of power. The first (and perhaps greatest) power is his executive power, during the swearing in of a government. At this time, the president is all powerful, and he/she administers the oath of office for the prime minister and cabinet. Here, let us say there is some one who’s a known criminal, who is trying to become a minister (these hypothetical examples might reflect reality, but that is purely coincidental). If the president want’s to, he/she can actually refuse to administer the oath of office to that person. There is absolutely nothing anyone can do about it. The second (somewhat related) occasion is when a governor of a state is appointed. That person too is appointed by the president (based on the recommendation by the government). At this time, the president can refuse to appoint strongly partisan governors, or governors known to be docile or easily satisfied. He can insist on the appointment of a governor with the same qualities of non-partisanship and understanding of constitutional law. This then has a direct and tremendous impact on the appointment of state legislatures, and we might avoid seeing some of the circuses during the process of state legislatures being elected.

The third occasion where a president has a lot of power is in his legislative role, in the passing of a bill. A bill becomes a law only when the president has given his approval. The parliament sends a bill to the president, and if the president does not approve of the bill, it can be sent back. However, the rule states that if the parliament does send the bill back to the president a second time, the president has to sign it, and the bill becomes a law. Now, with weak, populist governments (as is usually the case in India), sometimes bills that should never be passed reach the president. The president sometimes does disapprove of the bill (if I remember correctly, Kalam did do so for some bill, which I can’t remember), but it is often sent back to him a second time, and he has to sign it.

But the rule does not say how quickly the president has to sign it. If the president strongly feels that a bill is against the greater interest of the nation, but is in a situation where he has to sign it (because it has been returned to him a second time), he can just sit on it for as long as he wants, making life rather uncomfortable for the politicians pushing for it. In this time, the president can make his views clearer to the national public through the media, and particularly through his speeches during independence or republic day (which is televised live, and is printed in every single newspaper in the country).

To do this, however, the president needs to have the courage to not succumb to the pressure that is bound to follow him if he does not sign the bill. But this is one quality that a good president needs to have.

Of course, there is the fourth occasion where the president becomes all powerful, during a national emergency. But that is a situation I never wish to see, since it is invariably accompanied by the suspension of most fundamental rights and the right to freedom. It is particularly important to have a strong president during these times (or else there might be other incidents like what Indira Gandhi did to keep herself in power).

So, the president of India is not really all that powerless. His/her power is different, that’s all. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to be a good president. In fact, you probably shouldn’t be one.


Anonymous said...

Reminds me of what Venkataraman said; that the president was designed to be an emergency lamp, or something like that.

Anonymous said...


This is very well-written post. But remember, he was an engineer and a project manager before he became president. He may not even have dreamt that he would occupy a political/constitutional office.

His main failing, in my mind, is that he does not understand the art of using power.

Ditto for Manmohan Singh.

Anonymous said...

But, Sunil, the President is not directly elected by the people. For him to stick to his own vision of what a law should be like (particularly if the law has been passed by the Parliament -- the actual seat of popular will), would be a travesty of democracy. Thank FSM our Constitution does not allow this dangerous hijacking of powers by the institution of the Presidency.

You are also not right to claim that the President can sit on a piece of legislation for as long as he wishes. He cannot. It's a time-bound procedure, and our current President utilized the available time in full, before he signed the law related to the "Office of Profit" issue recently. (It was passed by the Parliament, sent back by the President, passed again by the Parliament, and he sat on it for as long as he could, and eventually did sign it).

I'm also not sure I agree with your views of the current President's "trusting" nature. Looks can be deceiving! To many of us, he is a serious hawk who propounds strange theories of political power (particularly in the realm of foreign policy related to how a country "earns the respect" of other countries) and economic development, all the while posing for pictures with cute little children.

Giving the President the right to decide who is a criminal is also dangerous. We have a way of deciding (operationally) who can and cannot participate in an election. It's of course a pity that this set of criteria depends on a judiciary that's unable to come to fair decisions in a reasonable time. But, to fix this "problem", you are looking for solutions in the wrong place.

I agree with the broad thrust of your post: there are ills in our system, and we should look for ways to rid our country of these ills. My humble suggestion to you would be to look for ways within our democratic system, and for ways to strenthen our democratic institutions. But, please (please, please, please!) stop asking for an all-knowing, FSM-like Superwoman or Superman (or, SuperWiseStatesPerson!) as President (or, for that matter, any other functionary). The road to dictatorship could also be paved with noble intentions!

Anonymous said...

Nice to see a good 'political' post here! I remember being particularly excited when Abdul Kalam became President - I guess I expected him to do a whole lot of things, having been impressed by his books and previous accomplishments - but somehow nothing happened, and it kind of slipped into the background.

I tend to agree with Abi though, I am not sure the president can or should actually use power in some of the ways you mentioned. But I do agree should and can do more.

Sunil said...

vishnu.....long time since you visited :-). I actually agree that the president is a kind of emergency lamp. I'll elaborate on that replying to Abi's comment.

Nitin....I agree. The president's job is interesting. He does have power, and the person entrusted with that job is expected not to abuse it but to use it wisely. I cannot recall a single Indian president who has done that. Abi....the idea is not to hijack power. That infact is not what this is all about. It is precisely to protect democracy and prevent the abuse of democracy that the president should act. A weak, pliable president will not act effectively in the appointment of governers (for example, agreeing to the appointment of strongly partisan governers, Buta Singh springs to mind right away, who will not act independently according to the constitution, but will act according to the party they support), or may be exploited during say the declaration of emergency (Fakruddin Ali Ahmed comes to mind immediately). Strongly partisan presidents will not act independently. Again, I'm not advocating that the president decide who is a criminal. But, if the president uses his power wisely, he can state strong opposition, and using appropriate channels make his views clear. This (in a democratic system) will make it much harder for a party in power to abuse its power. Perhaps my post did not make that clear, but the president has that critical role to check the abuse of democratic power, and most Indian presidents have largely failed in that.

Surya, Abi, I think we all agree that we don't want an all knowing president. That in fact was the title of my post. No superwomen or supermen. We need strong, independent (non-partisan) leaders committed to democracy, with a good understanding of the powers of the president and the constitution.

Anonymous said...

vishnu.....long time since you visited :-)

Well, I read your posts via RSS feeds. So, I don't have to visit unless I have a comment!

Sunil said...

heh...sorry Vishnu. Which reminds me to crib...a lot of my readers now use rss feeds or bloglines etc to read my posts. The result is that I miss out on a lot of nice discussions (its a pain to comment if you're reading through feeds...I'm guilty also, I read a lot of blogs through feeds, and hardly comment now) :-)

Anonymous said...

silly gora needs to know... what does "FSM" mean?

Anonymous said...

I have to disagree with you on this matter. The president cannot really refuse to adminster the oath of office. The appointment of a cabinet is one of the primary responsibilities and powers of the Prime Minister, and refusal by the president to
recognize this has very problematic implications. Also, as pointed out, the president
does not have an elected mandate, while the PM has. I do agree that the president can
and probably should advise and counsel though. On the matter of returning bills, the
last couple of Presidents, Kalam included have exercised this authority, and done so
wisely. If such authority is used too often, the deterrent effect of such an act will
reduce, and Parliament will be less inclined to take it seriously.

With regard to the appointment of Governors, at least since Indira Gandhi's days this
has been an issue of politics. I partially agree with you that the president can exercise
his advisory capacity on this matter.

Finally, when a President takes it upon himself/herself to go directly to the people
over a matter of politics, his/her office is exposed to the same criticism and attack
as any politician, and the nature of the office is unsuitable for such exposure. A
president is most effective behind the scenes.

On these matters, I think Kalam is pretty good, at least better than some his predecessors.

Anil Saldanha said...

Having a learned president and prime minister is a matter of prestige in the whole world. When I visited the Indian Consulate in Chicago, seeing the pictures of Dr.Kalam and Dr.Singh made me feel proud of what India is at this moment at the top level.

The other system below is rotten (ministers, MPs, local govts etc etc).

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