A secular democracy needs a secular President. With the BJP government in power questions have been raised about the adherence of the central government to the secular tenets of the Constitution.
Report on the attacks on places of worship of minority communities and their personnel, atrocities on Dalits and Muslims in the name of cow protection, rhetoric of “Ghar Wapsi” or reconversion, curbs on universities, colleges and NGOs, sedition charges on students for expressing their views, raids on the media and political opponents and public expression of intolerance on those who oppose the hidden agenda of the party in power have been reported in the worldwide media.
During his visit to India in June 2016 while US Senator Ben Cardin had expressed concerns over religious intolerance, anti-conversion laws, and extrajudicial killings in the country, US Secretary of State John Kerry had emphasized the need to protect the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful protest. European Union too had expressed its concern over the increasing cases of human rights violations in the country. It is in this environment of threats to various freedoms of individuals and communities that the country has elected its President, the highest Constitutional Officer meant to protect the Constitution. .
In the political climate we are in, the country needs a President who believes in the Constitution and is prepared to stand by it whatever may be the cost. That would mean that he should be a person with substance without much style, a person of high intellect and scholarship with a secular ideology. As the head of the state the person has to be perceived as a person of integrity and honesty, without any prejudice or bias against communities and people. For the people of the country, the President represents the Constitution and as the Constitutional head he is expected to warm up to all people of different castes and communities, religions and ethnicities. No individual or group can be untouchable to him.
Internationally the President is acknowledged as one of the important global leaders given the fact India is an emerging economy. The President has to interact with global leaders and impress on them the status of India and further contribute to its image, creating a space where none exists and expand the existing space in international relations for the country. That would demand that the individual has a global vision and the person is able to read the signs of the times to make use of opportunities for the betterment of the country.
It is true that the President is a nominal and ceremonial head. If one has to read the Constitution faithfully, that in no way takes away the demands of dignity and decorum of the office. In performance of his duties the President cannot remain a mere spectator but needs to speak out and act as some of the former Presidents have done to remain faithful to the letter and spirit of the Constitution.
When Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao maintained his silence on the Babri destruction, President Shankar Dayal Sharma spoke out against it on 6th December 1992 in the face of the massive assault on India’s secular project. President Narayanan had publicly expressed his displeasure on the Gujarat communal violence of 2002. In 1997 President K. R. Narayanan returned the United Front government’s recommendation to impose President’s rule in Uttar Pradesh. A year later, he again returned a recommendation by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s BJP government to impose President’s rule in Bihar. The President then was aware that it was his responsibility to protect and defend the Constitution while the Prime Minister and his Council vow “to bear true faith and allegiance” to the Constitution. The two expressions mean different things. The final responsibility of protecting the Constitution remains with the President.
Every President prior to taking office pledges “to the best of my ability to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution and the law” and “I will devote myself to the service and well-being of the people of India’. That does not make the President mere rubber-stamp. His powers are not given to him by the government in power but by the Constitution of India. In performing his function Article 143 gives to the President power even to consult the Supreme Court about the constitutional validity of any issue. Given the political climate where the party in power has very little regard to the Constitution of India, will the 14th President of India take his oath seriously? President Kovind is, after all, groomed in the RSS tradition with hardly any regard to the freedom struggle and respect to the Constitution. As he assumes his office will he turn away from the ideology he was groomed in and embrace the ideology of the Constitution of India? Citizens and those beyond the country will be watching the direction of the Indian polity with the 14th President in Office.
(The writer is the Principal of St. Aloysius Degree College, Bangalore.)(Published on 24th July 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 30)