.......to 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.