Monday, Jul 29, 2002
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By K.K. Katyal
WHAT SORT of President will A.P.J. Abdul Kalam make? This question, posed when he was nominated for the presidency last month, continued to excite the minds of politicians and lay people alike as he embarked on the journey to the august office. The opinions expressed earlier have been revised somewhat and misgivings moderated but, nonetheless, the querying game continues. It is mainly because of the circumstances of his nomination, not because of his personal merit or qualifications, especially in the field of his specialisation. He is the third head of state who is not from the world of politics S. Radhakrishnan and Zakir Hussain, being the other two and, as such, there is an element of incertitude as to how he will conduct himself in this field as he comes face to face with the turmoil of politics and is required to deal with the ways of wily politicians.
S. Radhakrishnan and Zakir Hussain were academics, a bit of political scientists and, thus, acquainted with major issues and prominent players. Dr. Kalam, the master of missiles and space, remained aloof from them, except at the later stage of his distinguished career when decisions on applying technological achievements to the security apparatus brought him in touch with the politicians in power. Dr. Kalam will have to learn the required techniques through "practicals" in the laboratory of politics. In normal situations, his job will be easy as the constitutional figurehead, he is not directly involved in the decisions of the Executive (though taken in his name) nor with other affairs of the Government. Within the prescribed parameters, he could choose his role. There was no set pattern it varied with individual incumbents. K.R. Narayanan, for instance, preferred to be a working President, of course, within the four corners of the Constitution exerting subtle indirect influence on the Executive and other arms of the Government. It is in abnormal circumstances that the mettle of the President is tested. As one of Dr. Kalam's predecessors, R. Venkataraman, noted, "the office of the President is like an emergency light. It comes on automatically when there is a crisis and goes off automatically when the crisis passes". How the "emergency light" of the presidency under Dr. Kalam operates depends on how effectively he masters the art of political crisis management. Given his qualities, he should not find this difficult.
The controversies at the time of his nomination, arose from three points one, the BJP, as the leading constituent of the National Democratic Alliance, wanted "our man" in Rashtrapati Bhavan, two, his choice was intended to undo the damage done by Gujarat, in particular (and project a liberal image of the Government, in general) and three, it fitted in with the thinking and orientation of the BJP (of which Pokhran II was a manifestation). The BJP was keen on putting the stamp of its choice and its decision on the nomination process, the moves for "consensus" notwithstanding, with a view to conveying a loud message that, with the majority, though slight, in the Electoral College, it was in a position to install its nominee in the top office. This show of assertiveness was in keeping with the tough line the BJP adopted in Goa (which was also reflected in the decision to back the Gujarat Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, to the hilt and in the "transfer of power" from the Prime Minister, A. B. Vajpayee, to L. K. Advani and his elevation as Deputy Prime Minister). While there is little ambiguity about the BJP's calculations, could one be sure that the nominee would oblige it? The early pointers are in the reverse direction.
Take the case of the key post of Secretary in the President's Secretariat. Dr. Kalam appointed a person of his choice, rather than the one informally suggested by the Government. This post is regarded as crucially important, perhaps because of the perception that the Secretary's inputs and processing help shape major decisions by the President.
Dr. Kalam's first remarks after assuming office were significant in many respects. Whether it was his pointed emphasis on secularism his "unflinching commitment to the principle of secularism, which is the cornerstone of our nationhood and which is the key feature of our civilisational strength" or his reference to the sanctity of the basic structure of the Constitution and the plea to "respect and uphold the constitutional processes, in the best interest of our people and our nation, without fear or favour and with fairness and firmness'', he displayed a welcome independence of mind.
A section of the Sangh Parivar, as was known, had been wanting the Constitution to be re-cast. It was to mollify this section, apart from other factors, that the NDA Government set up a review commission. Fortunately, the game plan did not work. The head of the commission, a respected, independent-minded former Chief Justice of India, did not show even a slight tilt towards the hidden agenda of the advocates of drastic changes. That the people, by and large, were opposed to a major tinkering with the Constitution was evident from the comments of vast sections of intellectuals and common citizens. Dr. Kalam's views were, thus, in conformity with the prevailing sentiment. That the ruling combine was not fully in tune with the standpoint was brought to light in January 2000 on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Republic by the divergence between Mr. Narayanan and the Prime Minister.
The gestures of the new President on the first two days in office, too, caused a pleasant surprise. His visits to the national memorials apart from the Raj Ghat, to the Samadhis of Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Charan Singh, Jagjivan Ram, and the Mazar of Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed reflected a keenness to project himself as the embodiment of national consensus. All Governments and all Prime Ministers would like the President of the day, to put it crudely, to be a rubber-stamp. But not all Presidents, in the past, were willing to be pliable. The first President, Rajendra Prasad, sought to carve out an advisory role for himself to zealously preserve the rights and privileges of the head of state, to the chagrin of Nehru. Dr. Radhakrishnan and Sanjiva Reddy, among others, made known their independence of judgement on crucial occasions. Zail Singh, the creation of Indira Gandhi, came into sharp conflict with Rajiv Gandhi, even though he had played a major role in his succession to the Prime Minister's post. There was the other extreme too, represented by the eagerness of a President to oblige the Prime Minister of the day and affix his signatures on the proclamation of Emergency, even before it was considered by the Cabinet. If the initial pointers are any indication, Dr. Kalam would not be in the pliable category.
Interestingly, the election of Dr. Kalam was widely noted and commented upon in Pakistan. Some called him a "show boy". Others saw it as a manifestation of secularism. Some others contrasted it with the raw deal received by architects of the nuclear programme in Pakistan such as A.Q. Khan and the Nobel Laureate, Abdus Salam. The first was sidelined after his removal from the official post, the second was hounded out, because he belonged to the Ahmedi or Qadiani sect, regarded by fundamentalists as non-Muslims.
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