A PRESIDENT WHO THINKS...
WHAT if the bjp had Shankar Dayal Sharma as President? an observer remarked, almost wistfully, after the 'tussle' over judicial appointments sneaked into the press. If ever anyone has underscored the world of difference a man can make to a title, its the current incumbent of Rashtrapati Bhavan: K.R. Narayanan. But what gives his tenure that extra dash of controversy is a matter of pure coincidence. For no fault of his, he represents a government whose policy orientation stands in complete and stark contrast to his personal ideals.
Narayanan and Atal Behari Vajpayee have managed to strike near-flawless personal equations. Its probably just as well that a general sophistication and grace in behaviour is present on both sides. But that, at best, helps to soften the edges, at least on the surface, of what is perhaps the sharpest breach ever seen between the two vital faces of Indian polity. For, the two stand for worldviews that have only a minimal overlap, two diametrically opposed impulses in the countrys politics.
Narayanan comes from an old, almost anachronistic, stock of political creatures. The labels have always been the same: a Nehruvian, a dyed-in-the-wool socialist, a left-leaning Congressman who learnt his ideology literally at the feet of European masters like Harold Laski, but one who never lost touch with the social reality he sprung up from. A man who combines his desire to see justice for the Dalits with a finical, textbook approach to legal fairness.
The difficulty of striking this balance was brought out by the latest row. Narayanan spoke his mind at a seminar on December 5, 1998: "In a vast country like ours with its immensity of diversities, it is important that in the judiciary all the major regions and sections of society are represented to the extent possible, consistent with the requirements of merit.... The argument is not that the judicary should follow some sort of proportional representation. The administration of law and justice is intimately linked to the social philosophy of the judiciary, and (this) cannot be entirely separated from the social origins of those who dispense justice."
The speech is proof, if any is needed, that its time to discard the notion that the President of India is an inert figurehead, only symbolically present in matters of policy. But the manner in which the controversy broke left the President very uncomfortable. His aides are mum on anything that could stir debate, beyond reiterating the points Narayanan made in his speech.
The cordiality that marks Narayanan's personal interaction with Vajpayee may be in the highest traditions of Westminster. But when it comes to what needs to be done, the President has always been his own man. He stymied the bjp government's move to dismiss the Bihar government, he has privately (and obliquely in public) condemned the attacks on Christian missionaries and, in a way like no President before, went out to cast his own vote during the last elections. Enough indicators that this is a President who will do just as the Constitution wills.
In this lies the difference between Narayanan and his predecessors. Unlike Zail Singh who had a noisy run-in with his prime minister, or Sharma, who was willing to sign on the dotted line, he sticks to the book. As a strict constitutionalist, he is not likely to be swayed by political considerations. Some bjp leaders contest that, and feel his streak of independence flies in the face of protocol. Says a leader, on Narayanan's remarks on the judiciary: "This is not a President's job. His role is clearly defined and he should stick to that." Clearly, in a hung Parliament, a President with a mind of his own may not be exactly what political parties want.
...AND A PARTY THAT DOUBTS
HOMESPUN in Gwalior, harnessed in the fledgling Jana Sangh in the days when the bitter aftertaste of Partition tinged Indian politics, Atal Behari Vajpayee could not have traversed a political trajectory more divergent from the man he has as his President. Not for him the details of western liberalism, though there is nothing to suggest that he opposes it. Again, his overriding philosophy of governance may be softer than that of the arch non-Congressmen among his colleagues. But his essential training brackets him with the saffron people - those who see themselves as harbingers of 'Indianness', which needs to be emphasised time and again - even if it means carrying out a nuclear explosion or two.
For Vajpayee and the bjp, the first tryst with President Narayanan was a happy one. A democratically elected Kalyan Singh government in Uttar Pradesh was being removed on specious grounds in March 1998: President Narayanan did not agree, and the Cabinet recommendation was returned. The bjp, then in opposition, sang hosannas about how the President had upheld democracy in the country, of how the rule of law had prevailed.
But trouble had to erupt when too many constitutionalists with contrasting worldviews came together in an uncertain political environment. The spark, for this potential tinderbox, was provided by the proposal to use Article 356 in Bihar - this time when the bjp combine was in power. The bjp governor, S.S. Bhandari, had done his homework and made out a strong case for dismissal. It is not clear whether Narayanan actually 'agreed' to the imposition of President's rule in the state, but the general 'consensus' among bjp leaders was that he had.
The consensus proved to be wrong. There were initial signs of panic when Narayanan sat on the recommendation for practically a week. As he consulted more and more constitutional experts and opposition leaders, panic gave way to the stark realisation that the President was not going to sign on the dotted line. When Narayanan finally turned down the proposal - much in the same way as he had done in UP - it came as a body blow to the party in power.
In some ways, this marked a watershed in the President-executive relationship. The bjp, naturally, found the lack of consonance irksome. For, consequently, Narayanan has not been exactly over-enthusiastic about Pokhran, and reportedly taken exception to the attacks on Christian missionaries (as was evident in his New Year speech where he quoted Swami Vivekananda as saying that tolerance was the way of life in India and any deviation from this basic premise would lead to trouble). Again, when the government sacked Navy chief Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat, the President met the sacked admiral immediately thereafter, fuelling speculation that the President had not quite taken the developments in his stride.
And now the judiciary controversy. On the surface, the bjp is keen to keep out of this melee. Says party chief Kushabhau Thakre: "There is no bjp here. This is a clash between the President and the Chief Justice. They are both very big constitutional heads. The government has no role to play here." Echoes party leader J.P. Mathur: "The government has no desire for a confrontation with the President. How does it help them?" But as contentious issues tumble out into the open, it takes no time for the latent unease to break the smooth air of protocol.