‘Preserving’ the Constitution means not allowing it to be trampled upon, and not being a mute spectator when the institutions it has created are defiled. Mr Pranab Mukherjee will have to bear in mind his accountability to the people in this respect.
Here are the 10 ways through which Mr Pranab Mukherjee, who is taking the oath of office today as the President of India, can leave his distinctive mark on the job and be a role model:
Adopting simple and austere lifestyle: Contemporary India itself has seen examples in this respect set by the likes of Nripen Chakraborty, Chief Minister of Tripura, Ms Mamata Banerjee, Chief Minister of West Bengal, and Mr A. P. J. Abdul Kalam. Mr Mukherjee, even if he cannot match them, can at least eschew ostentation and opulence, starting with drastically cutting down foreign jaunts with extended family members.
Being accountable to the people: In his very first observations after the announcement of the result, Mr Mukherjee has referred to his oath of office and pledged to conduct himself worthy of the trust reposed in him.
That oath requires him not only to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution and the law, (the part mentioned by him), but also to devote himself to the service and well-being of the people of India.
‘Preserving’ the Constitution means not allowing it to be trampled upon and not being a mute spectator when the institutions it has created are defiled and subverted.
Mr Mukherjee will have to constantly bear in mind his accountability to the tribunal of the people in this respect.
Being sensitive and responsive to people’s representations: Mr Mukherjee has to sensitise his secretariat to the imperative need to respond promptly to, and follow up on, the letters and representations received from the people.
Hitherto the practice has been to forward them to the concerned Ministries/agencies, with a copy endorsed to the sender, and then forget about it.
He should introduce the practice of his secretariat ascertaining from the Government the nature of the action taken and informing the sender.
A time limit of two months should also be fixed for taking action.
Visiting various parts of the country, especially the farthermost corners, frequently: This can be with five objectives in mind: To be visible and accessible to all sections of people; to enthuse individuals and institutions engaged in worthwhile public causes; to put heart into the weaker sections of society by having a running awareness of their problems; to maintain contact with youth and women, in particular, so as to channelise their energies towards nation-building activities; and to inspect schemes and projects undertaken by the Government so as to keep those implementing them on their toes.
Diligently scrutinising Cabinet papers and proposals coming to him: The Constitution gives the President the right, “generally or otherwise”, to require reconsideration of any advice given by the Cabinet, although he is bound to follow the advice received after such reconsideration.
Under a centuries-old convention, sanctified by Walter Bagehot’s treatise, the British Monarch on whom India’s Presidency has been modelled, enjoys the right to advise, encourage and warn the Ministers in furtherance of national interest. India’s President can also press this into service.
He should have the Bills and other proposals properly scrutinised, and not accord them routine approval.
Keeping abreast of developments: There is already s practice in Britain of the Prime Minister having lunch with the Monarch every Tuesday during which there is an informal and comprehensive exchange of views and information.
In India too, it is desirable to adopt a similar practice. It can also be extended to cover heads of political parties and Members of Parliament.
The President, of course, should be liberal in giving as many visitors from the different parts of the country as possible opportunities to meet him, and earnestly pursue the matters needing attention at his level.
Briefing himself on the quality of governance: The President can also meet periodically functionaries such as the Central Vigilance Commissioner; Chairman, Union Public Service Commission; Secretaries to Government and heads of Public Sector Enterprises to get an overall picture in regard to the quality of governance.
Using Rashtrapathi Bhavan to generate new ideas or launch non-political initiatives: Even within the Constitutional parameters, a keen and creative President can use his stature and influence to bring together leading lights in various fields such as agriculture, industry, science, technology, education, population trends, social service and environment, and encourage them to do out-of-the-box thinking on current and emerging issues of importance and forward to the Government or the concerned agencies recommendations for further course of action.
This was what C. Subramaniam used to do when he was the Governor of Maharashtra, thereby converting the Raj Bhavan into a veritable power-house of ideas.
Keeping a watchful eye on Defence and security: The Constitution vests the supreme command of the Defence Forces of the Union in the President, stating that the exercise of his authority by the Supreme Commander should be regulated by law. No such law has so far been passed. Arguably, while the President qua President is bound by Cabinet advice, the Supreme Commander, with a distinct and separate role in its own right, should be empowered to act in his best judgment when the nation’s defence demands instant decisions in grave situations.
Otherwise, he will be neither supreme nor a commander. Mr Mukherjee may like to have this question settled at the earliest. In any case, if he surfs through the Internet he would come across a number of Web sites in which former Defence personnel at all levels have been spreading hatred and disaffection against civilian political and administrative establishments. This is an alarming trend and the Supreme Commander will do well to go into the causes.
Time-lines for definitive disposal of references on various issues: As at present, there is no time limit prescribed for giving Presidential assent to Bills, especially those received from the States. The delays in dealing with petitions for clemency, pardon, and the like have reached scandalous proportions. Generally, despite the passage of 65 years after Independence, a sense of time is still foreign to Ministers and bureaucrats. Enforcement of time-lines by the President may tone up the system all the way down.