Our polity seems to be evolving at the top, to conform to the basics of an unbiased governance. After decades of post-Independence democratic arrangement of governance that saw moments of uneasy calm under the atrium of Raisina Hill, here comes a pleasant surprise for everyone to note. The Presidency under Pranab Mukherjee is gradually asserting itself, noticeably moving to tame the political executive going wayward in its bid to jump the parameters of constitutional obligations. This overawes the traditional pliancy of the Presidency that the Congress had put into the system long back when Jawaharlal Nehru as Prime Minister took command of the executive after independence. Mukherjee's instance duly gives credence to the Supreme Court ruling that the President is not a mere figurehead, but a moral authority who may stay in touch with the executive on matters of vital national importance and policy.
Dr Rajendra Prasad, the first President of the Republic, who himself represented an enormous base of political power, got into tiff with his Prime Minister on the distribution of authorities. The outcome of the two-year clash between these titans during 1950-51 shaped our polity, which recognized the supremacy of Parliament. Dr Prasad strived for wide discretionary powers for the President, but since our democracy had settled for a pure parliamentary form of government, Nehru had his way. Dr Prasad, however, felt knocked off a few times when Nehru didn't care to heed his advice.
This oddity arose mainly because our Constitution is vaguely worded on powers of the President, which has often led to tussles between Prime Ministers and politically-driven Presidents. Wordy duels between Nehru and Dr Prasad and between Rajiv Gandhi and Zail Singh are often cited as expressions of discontent over the powers of these top governing authorities. Zail Singh had even allegedly toyed with the idea of dismissing the Rajiv Gandhi govt on corruption charges and, also for his "casual attitude" as rioters burned thousands of Sikhs on Delhi streets in the summer of 1984.
Giani Zail Singh remarked in an interview later that despite tremendous pressure from Congressmen and the Opposition, he did not dismiss the Rajiv Gandhi govt. Singh, however, said : "there were a lot of corruption charges against Rajiv Gandhi. I could have dismissed him on those grounds... The President is within his rights to dismiss the Prime Minister in order to preserve and protect the Constitution."
But threat to Constitution emerges when President willfully plays a pliant tool in the hands of PM who chooses to subvert the system for personal gains. We have an example in the "Emergency", the darkest period of post-independence India, which refers to a 21-month period in 1975–77, when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had a State of Emergency declared in the country on June 25, 1975. An obliging President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed signed the proclamation under Article 352(1) of the Constitution for "internal disturbance." In fact, the country was at peace, the only threat was to Indira Gandhi's own position. The Allahabad High Court had, in a judgment, disqualified her from continuing as PM. She was held guilty of corrupt practices during her election campaign and the Emergency was used as a cynical contraption to perpetuate her hold on the govt. The then Indira loyalist West Bengal Chief Minister S S Ray and PM's son Sanjay Gandhi were instrumental in influencing her decision on Emergency.
Indira Gandhi drew the authority to rule by decree, allowing elections to be suspended and civil liberties to be curbed. Most of political opponents were put behind bars and the press underwent severe censorship. Numerous atrocities and excesses were committed, notable among them were demolition of colonies raised on private lands without approvals and forced mass-sterilizations under the supervision of Sanjay Gandhi, who had become de-facto ruler. Democracy lay in siege during this period.
The latest signals from the President's Estate augur well for the country. Pranab Mukherjee, installed in office by the UPA govt, seems to be putting his foot down to serve the wider cause of clean governance. And this piece of tiding has been brought to public domain by none other than Rahul loyalist Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid, who admits that the President's reluctance to clear the ordinances had stalled the anti-corruption measures pushed by Rahul Gandhi.
It may be noted that the Cabinet failed to bring five key anti-corruption bills despite Rahul's extreme pressure, putting the Congress vice president's clout to much embarrassment. Evidently, as veteran Congressman, Mukherjee remains a stickler for parliamentary propriety and apparently is not willing to compromise on principles. The Manmohan Singh govt's failure to get anti-graft laws enacted has drastically undercut Rahul's campaign paraphernalia.
The President's role assumes even greater importance in case of a coalition dispensation, especially when Parliament numbers prove elusive for the ruling alliance to push in reform measures. Rules of business in no way preclude the President from acting as an elder statesman to help resolve stalemates on key issues. Drawing a closer view of President Mukherjee's present posture, one hopes he will play a fair, unbiased role when it comes to the formation of a new government two months hence!