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President’s post not for political manipulation

President’s post not for political manipulation
It must have been one of the most dreadful weeks for the country’s 13th President, in which he displayed extraordinary political conviction, firmness and probity to withstood extreme pressure from the government and some of the big guns of the party he actively served for five decades to reject their verbal appeals to get a bunch of anti-corruption ordinances promulgated, just days after the 15th Lok Sabha was prorogued and before the Election Commission was ready with the next Lok Sabha election schedule. By doing this, President Pranab Mukherjee has upheld the highest honour and dignity to the country’s top constitutional post saving it from political manipulation.

The President of India is the constitutional head of the country. He or she (Pratibha Patil was India’s only woman President) may have been fielded or supported by a political party in Presidential election, but once elected to the highest constitutional post, he/she rises above sectarian politics, social and communal divides and pettiness. The President’s primary task is to uphold the spirit of the Constitution rising above partisan politics in the country’s interest. A principled politician, who had earlier served the government as a minister for 22 years and headed such key departments as finance, defence, external affairs and planning commission (deputy chairman), Pranab Mukherjee was absolutely right about the decision of not approving such ordinances at the current government’s term end and just before the Lok Sabha polls as they require full debate in Parliament before becoming law.

Anyway, the way the UPA government went about pushing these ordinances reportedly at the instance of Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi and pressing the President to fall in line gives the impression that Congress bigwigs had lost their balance to please the young, lately emerged conductor of the grand old party. Though some of the party seniors and alliance partners were believed to have been not in favour of moving such ordinances at such a late stage, they seemed to have been overwhelmed by the reported insistence by the Congress vice-president.

Interestingly, these ordinances were deliberately kept outside the official agenda of the last two UPA cabinet meetings and the matter was raised as part of ‘any other item’ for discussion that remained ‘inconclusive’. It was left to senior cabinet heavyweights such as Law Minister Kapil Sibal and Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde to seek the President’s informal nod to the ordinance idea. Since the president did not oblige on ethical as well as legal tenability grounds, the idea should have been dropped. But, it was not.

It was decided to make another last ditch attempt to make the President change his mind. Congress sent this time, probably with strategic intent, its finance minister, Palaniappan Chidambaram, otherwise known to be a Mukherjee baiter, on the last day before the Election Commission’s (EC) formal poll programme announcement. Expectedly, Chidambaram too failed to melt the ice and returned empty handed. The President refused to bend the constitutional probity.

Chidambaram’s parleys with the President in favour of the four anti-graft ordinances at a time when the prime minister was out of the country gave rise to several speculations as to the ordinance proposals, especially if they were already approved by the cabinet and the Prime Minister before he left for Myanmar. Or, is it possible that Congress satraps were out of tune with the Election Commission which, later in the day, announced its press conference the following day. It was a distinct possibility as the government hurriedly announced the appointment of Sheila Dikshit, Delhi’s recently defeated Congress chief minister, as the governor of Kerala replacing Nikhil Kumar. Kumar has been offered a constituency of his choice to fight the coming election on Congress ticket.

The gubernatorial appointment of Dikshit, a potential person to figure in the Rs 70,000-crore Commonwealth Games corruption case for which FIR was filed by the short-lived Aam Aadmi party (AAP) government in Delhi, even in PM’s absence, may have been intended to give her constitutional protection against appearance before the court. Dikshit’s appointment was a political masterstroke by UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi to save the party from any further embarrassment before the election.

Conversely, it also shows how hollow is the party’s latest stance on corruption. Under the constitution, governor is appointed by the President and stays in the job according to the ‘pleasure’ of the President. Mukherjee might have agreed to immediately accept the resignation of Kumar and appointment of Dikshit at the last moment advice of the government hours before the Election Code formally came into effect.

Could the President stall the appointment of Dikshit since EC had already sent media invitation on the day for its election schedule announcement next day? Maybe, but he did not. Probably, for two reasons – firstly, the action as per the advice of the UPA government was not strictly unconstitutional and, also, it has no direct relation to election. However, one can’t entirely rule out the possibility of the presidential order getting challenged before the court of law by the opposition, especially AAP, or any other.

In all fairness, it must be appreciated that President Pranab Mukherjee has, so far, shown the utmost dignity and constitutional probity in discharging his duties under difficult times. His candidacy for the job by Congress came at a time when the government found it difficult to handle the then finance minister who could probably blow up the lid on the Manmohan Singh-Chidambaram angle to the 2G spectrum allocation scam.

In fact, Mukherjee’s appointment as the finance minister in place of Chidambaram, who was shifted to Home Affairs, did not seem to go down well in certain high circles as it was soon discovered that his North Block office and chamber were fully bugged – a bizarre act which even the government couldn’t deny. Although Mukherjee got his office fully debugged and sanitized, till date no one officially knows who was behind the spying saga on the then finance minister and why.

Since Jawaharlal Nehru’s second term as the prime minister, when he faced a lot of questioning by the second term president, Babu Rajendra Prasad, there has not been another president to serve the highest constitutional office for two terms. Also, since then, the Congress party has been very choosey about its presidential nominees to ensure that the president acted as a titular head and did not apply his/her mind, not even during war or Emergency when he/she could assume the supreme power.

The controversy over official presidential nominee was at its peak during Ms Indira Gandhi’s regime, which witnessed most ‘favourable’ presidents as Varahagiri Venkat Giri, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed (during the Emergency), Giani Jail Singh and Ramaswamy Venkataraman. Narasimha Rao’s reform was blessed with Shankar Dayal Sharma. No wonder, UPA chose Ms Pratibha Patil over A P J Abdul Kalam, the internationally acclaimed space scientist, who is known for his integrity and independent mind.

Pranab Mukherjee’s relationship with the next government promises to be an interesting chapter of Indian politics irrespective of whether Congress manages to return to power or not.

IPA
Nantoo Banerjee

Nantoo Banerjee

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