Thursday, November 10, 2005

K R Narayanan -- India's scholar President

Very rarely India has seen persons of scholarly pursuit occupying the office of the President. K R Narayanan -- arguably only the second person of such eminence, after S Radhakrishnan, to occupy the high constitutional position -- passed away yesterday in Delhi after battling lung and renal problems.

The Indian President is much like the Queen of England, only that in India the occupants are elected. President is the Head of the State, while the Prime Minister is the Head of the Government. The President has little executive power. Using his moral authority, he can only counsel the government, which is formed out of lawmakers who are elected directly by the people once in five years.

Funnily, the government needs the stamp of the President for almost all important decisions, even legislations approved by a majority vote. This peculiar role of the President has been many times misused by the ruling party to ram through -- mostly executive -- decisions without even giving a pretence of weightage to the wiser counsel of the President. And, this has given rise to even demands that the post be abolished.

But, the constitution has the provision for a President for very valid reasons. It's an entirely different issue that the executive hasn't often deemed fit to consider the views of the Head of the State.

It works like this. Being a democracy, in India, majority rules. For example, if the executive feels that the death penalty should be abolished, and majority of lawmakers concur with that, well then that's it. It's abolished. After such a law has been approved by the House of the People (Lok Sabha), it needs the stamp, approval of the President for it become a full-fledged law.

Thus it's one man's wisdom against a collective decision. This is a very essential check -- even in a democracy -- since what's right and wrong is also subjective and could vary. Even though 500 odd lawmakers represent a billion Indians, the crucial decision is, after all, that of 250+. And, it could very well be, if not wrong, at least not appropriate, or may need some tempering. Especially when highly political decisions are taken.

In the above example, if the public opinion is that death penalty shouldn't be abolished, and the independent media (which India is very fortunate to have) reflect this view, then the President (irrespective of whether he himself is in favour or not) has the responsibility to halt this law on its track and counsel the government to rethink on the legislation, probably modify it.

It's here the wisdom the President comes in. It's not that one man's decision is more dependable than that of 250+. What a President should actually contribute is an academic and scholarly input into a subject that is being put to a mere test of numbers. (Incidentally, in India the collective decision of elected lawmakers is also brought into scrutiny by the independent media.) And, of course finally, the voice of the majority will prevail. But the issue is: has it considered any inputs, if any, of the President.

There was a time, when the office of the President was mostly used as a tool for political expediency. It touched a nadir during the time of Indira Gandhi as Prime Minister. Political parties that nominate candidates for presidential poll, have tended to pick malleable personalities rather than those with scholarly pursuits. Also, very rarely there has been healthy exchange of ideas between the legislature and the executive on side and the Head of State on the other.

Fortunately, there have been signs of change. And, Narayanan shone like a beacon. He was one intellect who made his views known, and didn't meekly surrender to majority decisions. Many times he has counselled the government on executive decisions, even -- defying tradition -- summoned ministers and bureaucrats for clarifications. He has forced the majority to stop, and ponder over their decisions. While many Presidents have been just rubber-stamps, Narayanan just did what he was supposed to do, and was often unfairly called an activist President.

The fact that Narayanan is the first President who belonged to the class of society (Dalits or untouchables) who were once -- as a matter of institutionalised social policy -- widely shunned and discriminated against is not important. Of course, he did capitalise on the constitutional provision of positive discrimination (reservation for socially marginalized people -- Narayanan was one such, because of his caste). But, that's precisely what he was supposed to do. But matters much more is the fact that his erudition and scholarship vindicated the positions of eminence he graced.

Narayanan was succeed in 2002 by an equally eminent person as the President -- Abdul Kalam, a rocket scientist, who pioneered India's space and missile technology. Again like Narayanan, Kalam also worked hard his way up. Again, like Narayanan, he has infused life and dynamism to Presidency in his own way. Kalam's term expires in 2007.

Narayanan will always be looked upon as an ideal, who refused to bow down to adversity and who blended sound intellect with purposeful social practice to make India a still better place on Earth.

1 comment:

  1. Got here via Harvard University's Global Voices online. Very nicely written post.