President: The Role of a Neutral Umpire

President: The Role of a Neutral Umpire

pranab mukharji

By: Isha Sahni

Pranab Mukherjee, President of India, in recent days has made it evidently clear that he was not going to be the Congress-led UPA government’s or any other government’s supporting system or their ‘yes man’.

To those who have met him, he has said, his role in Rashtrapati Bhavan is strictly within the ambit of India’s constitution. It is his bounden duty to preserve and protect the constitution. Therefore, cautioning the government against resorting to ordinances barely a week after the 15th Lok Sabha had adjourned sine die, because there is no urgency at this juncture.

Further, these ordinances might not stand the scrutiny of the court especially as the schedule for the multi-phased general elections has been announced. India will elect a new Lok Sabha over a nine-day period from April 7 to May 12, and the results will be announced May 16.

Prior to the cabinet meeting Sunday evening, union Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde accompanied by Law Minister Kapil Sibal and political secretary to the Congress president, Ahmed Patel, called on the president to get his sense on the proposed anti-graft ordinances.

The ordinances had the strong backing of Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi to provide more teeth to effectively combat the malaise of corruption. Congress leaders tried their best at the last minute as it were and expectedly failed.

They cannot apportion blame elsewhere. It was clearly a no go at Rashtrapati Bhavan, the erstwhile Viceregal lodge. Shinde and Sibal came back and reported to the cabinet the president’s observations. This led to bidding adieu to the ordinances at least for now.

What is intriguing is that the law ministry had also advised the Manmohan Singh government to keep these legislations on hold and leave it for the next government.

It is not a long wait as the current term of UPA II ends May 31. Whichever government takes shape has to be installed in office by June 1, barring the imponderables.

Mukherjee found it perplexing that the Manmohan Singh government should attempt to rush through matters virtually on the eve of the model code of conduct taking effect in the run up to the 16th Lok Sabha elections.

Opposition parties and its leaders including CPI-M’s Prakash Karat and BJP’s Subramanian Swamy promptly wrote to the president to reject outright any attempt by the UPA II to steamroll these ordinances through the backdoor. In all this manoeuvring, several ministries sought to take advantage and squeeze in their ordinances as well.

What the UPA did not bargain for is for the president to put his foot down. He refused to budge from the book nor indulge in any partisanship. Familiar with the rules and procedure of parliament, Mukherjee has bailed out the ruling regime time and time again from a tight spot as a senior and highly respected minister in the union government.

Everyone on the treasury benches and beyond looked to him for his sage counsel in matters parliamentary and other issues.

The UPA government must accept responsibility in large measure for the disturbances in parliament since the monsoon session last year. It failed miserably to rein in its members particularly the MPs from the Telangana and Seemandhra regions of Andhra Pradesh.

This despite all Telugus realising bifurcation of AP and creation of Telangana had become inevitable. Even Seemandhra MPs were one in explaining that there was a vertical split in their ranks on creating a separate state of Telangana. This demand and the concomitant struggle lasted no less than 57 years.

Trying to evolve a consensus on contentious bills by the busy bodies in the Congress like Parliamentary Affairs Minister Kamal Nath was either non-existent or an unmitigated disaster. It required the direct intervention of the prime minister himself on a few occasions to seal the Lokpal bill.

It cost the ruling alliance dearly as the BJP leaders explained that if they had facilitated the passage of the Lokpal in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, they would have supported the other anti-graft legislations as well subject to their amendments being adopted.

The cabinet had necessarily to confine itself to clearing a proposal to include Jats in the OBC reservation list in nine states in the country and approve certain amendments to the AP reorganisation act.

With UPA II being a lame duck government, it was constrained to hold back using the special powers in the Constitution which held the portends of inviting criticism coupled with a rap from the court.

In his address to the nation on the eve of the Republic Day celebrations in January, the president warned of political instability being catastrophic for the country. India reflects his concern about the social and economic downslides of the stalled growth and affirmed he will adhere to constitutional norms in government formation.

Mukherjee reminded the people that the government must work within the framework of the Constitution. Strongly believing in the parliamentary system, he is not going to be hustled by ordinances which the government of the day believes needed to go through urgently.

It is clear his role in the upcoming elections is going to be that of a neutral umpire. As an elder statesman, he will refrain from making partisan references. He is categoric that India’s prospects will he hurt if the elections do not yield a stable government.

His election as president last year was a smooth affair. His entry into Rashtrapati Bhawan was assured. It was due to his respect across the political spectrum and widely acknowledged as a thinking and impartial politician. The moment he put his hat in the ring for the high office of president, opposition to him dissipated. He triumphed by a very handsome margin in the electoral college of the two houses of parliament and the state legislatures.

The president’s address at the start of the new year raised eyebrows and caused unusual ripples in the political arena. During his inaugural Independence Day address Aug 14 last year, he lamented the declining influence of the legislature and the judiciary along with wastage of precious resources through indolence and indifference.

The president deeply regretted that “our legislatures look more like combat arenas rather than the fora to legislate. Corruption has become a major challenge. This regression needs to be corrected”.

The president has been forthright about what the people of the country expect from the political class. They want firm and affirmative action for turning around the economic backslide and perking up growth. The action of the government should not impinge on legality and propriety. Therefore, the suggestion by public interest organisations that an ordinance can be brought if there is a consensus would have never met with the his approval.

On some occasions in the past then presidents had chosen to be the rubber stamp of the government. There were those who held their ground and refused to do the bidding of the government which they believed to be unlawful or detrimental in the country’s interest. This resulted in a face-off and an uneasy relationship between the two highest constitutional offices.

That is one major difference with the present occupant of Rashtrapati Bhavan. A statesman and a thinking politician owing allegiance to the constitution, Mukherjee’s term as president is refreshingly different determined to steer clear of the undemocratic ordinance route. And his role will be keenly watched in the weeks to come, especially if the elections throw up an unclear verdict.

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