Monday, June 25, 2012

Presidents 101

I thought it worthwhile to reiterate this — the President does represent us. As ‘First Citizen’, he (or she) signs off on our future. He often serves as the voice of our conscience and sometimes, as the face of the nation.
At the very least, he has power to overturn the death penalty. As head of the executive, he signs bills passed by Parliament. However, if he does not agree with the decision, he can send a bill back once. He can’t overturn decisions, but he can force MPs to think about whether their decisions are in the national interest. At the very least, his act of returning a bill unsigned alerts the rest of us to the fact that a law is problematic.A President is also commander-in-chief of the armed forces. He appoints state Governors, the Chief Justice and other judges of the Supreme Court and the High Courts, the Attorney General, the Comptroller and Auditor General, all the Election Commissioners, and the Ambassadors to other nations. Even if he doesn’t do the actual hiring himself, there must be a lot of paperwork. And if he is conscientious about the right people being hired for very important jobs, he should check the backgrounds of those he appoints.
His role is critical in times of crisis, such as an Emergency, which India has experienced already. It is the President who declares an Emergency in times of war, or internal rebellion. Besides, when states face a constitutional crisis, ‘President’s rule’ is imposed. The Governor can dissolve an elected Assembly in the name of the President. This too has happened in Jammu and Kashmir, and more recently, Jharkhand. Clearly, the President wasn’t vacationing while these crises were playing themselves out. Tough decisions had to be made, against great political pressure, and with huge ramifications for Indian democracy.
It’s true that the President acts on the advice of the Prime Minister and the cabinet. Even so, he must decide whether or not he should take that advice. Legally, his decision cannot be challenged on the grounds that it is not in accordance with the PM’s advice. Nor is he easy to get rid of, unless it is proved that he violated the Constitution. Even so, the government can’t impeach him without the support of two-thirds of both Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha. That is another reason why it’s important to build consensus on the candidate. MPs are not bound to follow party orders when voting for a new President, since they vote by secret ballot.
I do hope the next President follows in KR Narayanan’s footsteps and sends out communiqués to explain his decisions. It would have helped if Pratibha Patil had done the same. For instance, her decision to tackle 30 mercy petitions, and saving lives, including those convicted for killing children (one was a jailer’s daughter, gang-raped and killed inside jail premises). But Patil did not come to a decision on mercy petitions from men accused of political (separatist) murders. It would help if she explained why, because I just don’t understand.

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