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Pranab Mukherjee on development

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Mr. Pranab Mukherjee is now the 13th president of India. His acceptance speech, reported by OneIndia dwells on a model of development which probably puts him at odds with many of his erstwhile cabinet colleagues:

Our federal Constitution embodies the idea of modern India: it defines not only India but also modernity. A modern nation is built on some basic fundamentals: democracy, or equal rights for every citizen; secularism, or equal freedom to every faith; equality of every region and language; gender equality and, perhaps most important of all, economic equity. For our development to be real, the poorest of our land must feel that they are part of the narrative of rising India.

I have seen vast, perhaps unbelievable, changes during the journey that has brought me from the flicker of a lamp in a small Bengal village to the chandeliers of Delhi. I was a boy when Bengal was savaged by a famine that killed millions; the misery and sorrow is still not lost on me. We have achieved much in the field of agriculture, industry and social infrastructure; but that is nothing compared to what India, led by the coming generations, will create in the decades ahead.

Our national mission must continue to be what it was when the generation of Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel, Rajendra Prasad, Ambedkar and Maulana Azad offered us a tryst with destiny: to eliminate the curse of poverty, and create such opportunities for the young that they can take our India forward by quantum leaps. There is no humiliation more abusive than hunger. Trickle-down theories do not address the legitimate aspirations of the poor. We must lift those at the bottom so that poverty is erased from the dictionary of modern India.

This presidential election has received much media coverage, and many have wondered how an active politician will take to the restrained role that the president is supposed to play. Among these is Harish Khare, whose opinion piece in the Hindu is steeped in the hidden controversies that he must have had intimate knowledge of in his capacity as media adviser to the prime minister. Apart from the ad hominem attacks on the new president, the article pushes an extreme view of the institution of the presidency that is surely unacceptable to a public which is fed up of the corruption in politics:

Like any other constitutional institution, the presidential office gets defined by the man and the circumstances. Mr. Mukherjee too will seek to reshape the office. However, it would be a sobering thought to remember that Rashtrapati Bhavan is not a rival centre of authority. There has always been a school of thought which wants to use the presidential office as the cat’s paw, sabotaging the elected government of the day. This was the temptation that prompted the unseemly campaign launched by Bhairon Singh Shekhawat in 2007; some similar thoughts were at the back of the mind of those who choreographed the P.A. Sangma candidature. A presidential election is, no doubt, a contest with considerable political overtones; and, the electoral college numbers may or may not be comfortable to the Prime Minister and his support base in the Lok Sabha. But it is against the letter and spirit of the Constitution to inject the notions of an activist President, as the losing sides tried to do these last two presidential polls. This holds good for the winner as well as for the loser.

Nor is the President a referee in the routine disputes and arguments between the ruling party and the Opposition. After the National Democratic Alliance was voted out in May 2004, L.K. Advani and his fellow travellers almost made a habit of going up Raisina Hill all too frequently and presenting a memorandum of complaints against the UPA government; and then, with the magnificent Rashtrapati Bhavan in the background, the NDA leaders would suggest meaningfully that the President was in sympathy with their grievance. It made good television but needlessly dragged the head of the republic into unsavoury controversies. These trips up the Hill virtually ceased once Pratibha Patil succeeded Abdul Kalam. But for a while it was sought to be made out as if the President of the republic has yellow and red cards which can be shown to this or that presumably offending minister or even to a Prime Minister.

An ideal President is one who becomes a source of wise counsel to the Prime Minister; it is easier said than done. The Prime Minister must feel comfortable driving down to Rashtrapati Bhavan and the obligation of consultation should not become a joyless burden; just as the President must remember that the Prime Minister of the day has his share of political difficulties and constraints.

The Indian republic finds itself at a crossroads when every institution is seeking to maximise its reach and influence at the expense of the executive. It would be doubly unfortunate if the Pranab presidency too allowed itself to become a source of political distraction.

These last words seem to come directly from a bureaucrat in the PMO.

While Mr. Khare seems to raise convention into constitutional requirement, Deccan Herald reminds us that the president enjoys highly regulated, but considerable, powers:

The executive powers of the Indian union, under Article 53 of the constitution, vest in the president. The president has a right to be informed of all of the nation’s affairs, enjoys powers to appoint and remove high constitutional authorities, including the prime minister and the council of ministers. All appointments of the judges of the Supreme Court and the High Courts, the state governors, the attorney general, the comptroller and auditor general (CAG), and the chief commissioner and members of the election commission are made in his name.

The budget session of parliament always begins with the president’s address and if there is a deadlock in legislation process between the two houses of parliament, the president summons a joint session to break the impasse. Under the Indian constitution, the government needs prior presidential sanction before introducing legislation such as for creating a new state or changes in the boundary of existing states or even a change in its name. Also, legislation dealing with fundamental rights under the constitution require the president’s consent, similar to money bills introduced in the Lok Sabha. Besides, all bills passed by parliament need the president’s nod before becoming law.

However, his powers are limited to the extent that he can ask the council of ministers to reconsider a bill they have sent him for signing, such as invoking of Article 356. But if the council of ministers sends back the bill, the president has no choice but to accept it.

The president enjoys judicial powers, primarily to rectify judicial errors, grant pardons and reprieves from punishment. The president can also seek the opinion of the supreme court on legal and constitutional matters and on matters of national and people’s interest.

The president causes the presentation of audit reports before parliament and is to receive the report of the finance commission and to act on its recommendations.

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Written by Arhopala Bazaloides

July 25, 2012 at 8:58 am

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