'Amidst Political Polarization, a Role for the President'

Published: August 9, 2016 - 15:39

Shrinivasrao S. Sohoni Delhi 

More than two years and a half remain before the next General Elections to Parliament fall due, but India's politics presents a disturbing picture of polarisation jeopardising governance and aggravating threats to national well-being. 

Ever since the BJP came to power in 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, his government and his party, have been focal points of incessant criticism mounted by representatives of the Congress Party, Communist Parties,   and their respective affiliates in civil society. Sustaining defeats in the recently concluded State Assembly elections in traditional strongholds, the Left Parties and the Congress appear going hammer and tongs at the Prime Minister - castigating even salutary advances in higher governance registered under his leadership.  Forthcoming general elections to State Assemblies further bedevil government-opposition relations at the Centre. 

With international terrorist syndicates casting a long shadow menacing national security and economic progress, India’s political leaderships cannot fail to note that more than ever this is a time for national unity and cooperation across political party lines. 

On current reckoning, prospects of wholesome change in India’s political climate, however, appear non-existent; nor is any forum apparent as potentially helpful towards a meeting of minds and transition to healthier politics. Parliament long ago ceased to be a venue facilitating consensus. Instead, it became an arena for continual confrontation and theatrical attack on the government of the day. Even issues vital to National Security, Foreign Policy, and the national economy, fail to receive commensurate attention in Parliament owing to Opposition filibustering. What chance then of amicable, mutually respectful, meaningful Parliamentary debate leading to consensus necessary in the national interest? 

Sadly, the fourth Pillar of State: India's Press and Media, also counts for precious little in the aggregate, regarding exerting a moderating influence sufficient to temper India's politics. Indeed, the opposite appears the case: news of sensational nature, - the worse, the better - being seized as manna from the heavens by far too many of India’s numerous TV channels and print-media outlets. Research in Social Media reveals sharp recriminatory exchanges pervading discourse between "key-board warriors" on each and every issue of national importance whether social, economic, political or theological.  

Where then in India’s polity may be found the resources, scope, and possibilities, to check and reverse trends that impact and undermine the country’s security, peace, and economic advancement? The answer is supplied by Comparative Constitutional study, especially focusing on the working of the unwritten British Constitution, and more so the Constitution of India and India’s Constitutional history. On the model of the role of the British monarch, the President of India as Head of State and Custodian of the Constitution of India may be postulated to be a rallying and unifying figure in the national ethos and India’s political economy. Such a role becomes an unwritten but obligatory Presidential duty proactively to be discharged by the President in times of dangerous political turbulence and tension potentially destabilising the State. 

In difficult conditions describable as above, previous Presidents had risen to the occasion to safeguard overarching national interest viz. the safety and future of the people of India - by upholding the Constitutional Scheme and the Rule of Law. Astutely keeping away from public glare, but at the appropriate time insightfully informing and sensitising the public mind, they had exerted a judicious healing influence: in a non-partisan way to counsel Political Party leaderships, and navigate, pilot and guide the country’s politics towards stability to serve overall national good. 

Dr.S.Radhakrishnan did so in 1962: in the aftermath of the Chinese aggression; Shri R. Venkataraman in 1991: after Rajiv Gandhi's horrendous assassination - midway into General Elections - necessitating suspension of the notified election schedule and its revision; Dr.Shanker Dayal Sharma intervened in 1992: in the explosive convulsions resulting from the then political party leaderships' failure to prevent the demolition of a disused but politically ultrasensitive structure in Ayodhya; and President Sharma applied himself thereafter through the period up to and including 1996-97 during which a 'hung' Parliament having been produced by the General Elections of 1996, four changes of government were rung out by peaceful due process. 

Shri Pranab Kumar Mukherjee, the incumbent of the august office of President of India, is short to enter the final year of his current presidential term, - each day’s passing: swift, inexorable, and irreversible. Possessing a razor-sharp intellect, a wealth of political and Constitutional knowledge and experience, tact and great personal charm, President Mukherjee is uniquely well-placed and well-equipped to fulfil the role of Rashtrapati - a national father-figure. 

The last year of President Mukherjee's term, could well prove to be his finest hour in the service of the Nation. Should that come so to pass, would President Mukherjee not deserve the lasting approbation and gratitude of the Indian people? An opportunity presents itself soon when he could begin the process of strategic presidential intervention: via the customary Presidential ‘Address to the Nation on the eve of Independence Day’ preceded and succeeded by inconspicuous consultations with, and gentle but the clear guidance of, leaders of the Opposition parties and occupants of the Treasury benches. 

In times of international conflict, change, and endemic turbulence, as presently rife, it is easy to adopt radical and combative postures. The paramount need, however, is of a sense of occasion, proportion and propriety, moderation and common sense. India’s Opposition parties need to be somewhat more mindful of paramount national interest and execute a role of responsible opposition rather than opposition merely for opposition’s sake to the detriment of the public interest; and members of the ruling dispensation on their part need to be viewed going the extra mile to be accommodative, consensual, and adept in the art of enlightened compromise. 

Imagine: India can then prove to be a massive bastion and torque force for Peace, Stability and Progress in the prevailing troubled and anxious world. The President with the Prime Minister’s well-considered advice and support could and should judiciously pioneer the way to this happy prospect. Leaders of the Opposition, whether the atheist Communist or the avowed-secularist Congress, must need to extend cooperation in this cause. The President’s role to actuate this eminently desirable outcome can be pivotal. Conceivably, even the ‘old country’, post-Brexit, may then have something to learn from the example set by India’s Constitutional Head. 

In Shakespeare's: "The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice" (Act V, Scene II, Line 339), Othello had arguably averred of himself what President Pranab Kumar Mukherjee could validly claim on expiry of his current term of office on 25 July 2017: "I have done the state some service, and they know't."  

The writer was Secretary to the President of India; and Senior Adviser, Office of the President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.