Editor : Satish Ohri    Edition : August 2017

President Ram Nath Kovind

President Ram Nath Kovind has all the makings of A P J Abdul Kalam. Both hail from humble origins and both rose to occupy the highest post of the land. In both instances, the Prime Ministers of the day, Narendra Modi now and Atal Behari Vajpayee earlier, managed to stump the Opposition, to install their personal choices in the Rashtrapati Bhawan. Just as the then Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee pulled off a political coup with his choice of Kalam, which left the Opposition baffled, Prime Minister Narendra Modi sprang a surprise on the Opposition by choosing Ram Nath Kovind for the highest office of President. It saw the Opposition ranks breaking loose, with JD (U) leader and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar supporting the NDA Presidential candidate, along with other Opposition leaders like AIADMK leader and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister E Palaniswami and the rival faction of O Paneerselvam, TRS leader and Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrashekhar Rao and YSRCP leader and Leader of Opposition in Andhra Pradesh Assembly Y S Jaganmohan Reddy. Prime Minister Modi has managed a coup of sorts by choosing a Dalit for the Presidential post. Since his elevation to the Congress Vice-President’s post, Rahul Gandhi had been busy wooing Dalits by camping at their places and sharing food with them. But with his single out-of-the-box decision, Modi has sharply divided the Opposition, just as the choice of Kalam did in the past. Besides, the BJP and the RSS have given a fresh push to Dalit outreach. The BJP has signalled that it chose a Dalit leader for the country’s top post at a time when it had absolute majority, a position that allows it to put up a President of its choice. By choosing a Dalit from the largest Hindi-heartland State of Uttar Pradesh, that gave BJP 73 of the 80 MPs in 2014, the saffron party hopes to use it to electoral advantage. Both the President and the Prime Minister, who is elected from Varanasi, now belong to Uttar Pradesh.

A humongous success for the BJP is that it is set to occupy the top important posts of President, Vice-President, Prime Minister and Lok Sabha Speaker. The Right-wing party that for long remained on the margins, managed to move on to the national political centrestage, by pushing the Congress, often hailed as the natural party of governance, to the margins. Besides being a Dalit, the single factor that elevated him as President, Ram Nath Kovind is an agriculturalist from rural India and an advocate by profession. Known for his gentle demeanour and dignified conduct, Ram Nath Kovind remained untouched by corruption or controversy, the twin hallmarks of a politician. A practising lawyer, he is aware of the legal intricacies of governance. Besides, having served as Personal Secretary to Prime Minister Morarji Desai in the Janata Party regime during 1977-79, he has exposure to administrative niceties. As member of Rajya Sabha for two terms, he has first-hand knowledge of the functioning of Parliament and having served as Bihar Governor from 2015-17, Kovind has exposure to the protocol requirements of the highest Constitutional post of the land. Profile of the President itself has undergone considerable change over time since the Constitution was adopted on January 26, 1950. The Constitutional position originally was that the President was not bound by the advice of the Prime Minister and his Council of Ministers. Yet, President Rajendra Prasad, who was the first Head of State and remained in office for a decade chose not to meddle with the decisions taken by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Sensing the unparalleled popularity of First Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, President Rajendra Prasad chose to remain a titular Head of State, as the Congress leaders originally envisaged, based on the model of the British Monarch, giving a free hand to the Prime Minister to run the Government the way he wants. Successive Presidents that followed him, like Dr S Radhakrishnan, Dr Zakir Hussain, V VGiri and Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, followed the precedent set by Dr Rajendra Prasad. The Constitutional position, however, dramatically altered, when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi brought about the Constitutional 42nd Amendment during the Emergency in 1976. The amendment made the aid and advice of the Prime Minister and his Council of Ministers binding on the President. The only exception it made was that the President may return the recommendation of the Council of Ministers once for reconsideration. But, if the Council of Ministers sends back the recommendation, it becomes binding on the President.

During the Vajpayee Government, when Prime Minister Vajpayee was away on a tour abroad, L K Advani presided over a Cabinet meeting and recommended to the then President K R Narayanan the dismissal of the Bihar Government. President Narayanan returned the recommendation for reconsideration, which was kept pending by the Government. After the return of Prime Minister Vajpayee from his foreign tour, the Cabinet sent back the recommendation to the President, which then became binding on him. In the altered situation, the President has now discretion only in the appointment of the Prime Minister. In 1996, when the BJP under Atal Behari Vajpayee emerged as the single largest party with 161 seats tally, he was invited by President Shankar Dayal Sharma to form the Government. The Congress, which emerged as the second largest party, decided to support the United Front, headed by H D Deve Gowda. When the Congress sought appointment to convey its decision to the President, it was given time in the evening. Vajpayee was called earlier in the afternoon and he was invited to form the Government. The Vajpayee Government, which failed to muster the numbers, lasted 13 days in office and was finally forced to resign, even without facing the vote on the Confidence Motion, pending in Lok Sabha. Following Vajpayee’s resignation, the Congress-backed United Front was invited to form the Government. In 1998, however, the then President K R Narayanan set the benchmark that the Government should have the numbers to run the Government, in order to get the Invite for Government-formation. Vajpayee, again, who emerged at the head of the single-largest formation, had to wait for a while to get the letter of support from the then AIADMK supremo J Jayalalithaa. After her letter arrived, a beaming Vajpayee appeared before the media to declare, “Chittiaayeehai” (the letter has come). Later, TDP supremo and the then undivided Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu bargained for the post of Lok Sabha for his party and extended support to the NDA headed by Vajpayee, who finally mustered absolute majority. With well-settled precedents in place, one only hopes President Ram Nath Kovind will prove to be a worthy successor to his illustrious predecessors. It goes to the credit of Pranab Mukherjee that though being a politician to the core, all through his life, he left the Rashtrapati Bhawan without a single controversy.

-Anita Saluja

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