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After Droupadi Murmu's election, should President still be called Rashtrapati?

By Dr Mansee Bal Bhargava* 

Congratulations to the new President of India, Smt. Droupadi Murmu and best wishes to the outgoing President of India Shri. Ramnath Kovind. As Smt. Draupadi Murmu makes it to the first citizen alias top position of the country, the President of India, the media houses flash the news as the first tribal and second women President is elected. Even the leaders and others also assert this identity of first tribal and second women President on Smt. Murmu. On the one hand it feels like, yes, it is high time that we have someone representing the indigenous community of the country and definitely yes, it is high time that the next 11 Presidents are women to settle the scores of covering half the land, water and sky of the country. On the other hand, one gets to think about the stinkingly deep-rooted caste/class/origin and importantly gender discrimination as well as distortion that are among the gifts (rather diseases) of the patriarchy and elitism in the country. Have you heard media (even system) saying, a White-Male-UpperCaste-Rich-Old- leader is s/elected? Just think! Had we done this until now, we would have changed the state of the apathy of men (only) at the top positions for long time and arrived at this day much before than now.
Just wondering do we need the prefixes and personal lives to subjugate one’s hard built professional career and personality. Smt. Murmu has an enlightening career of 25 years built on merits and that requires highlighting at the onset more than portraying the vulnerabilities which are certainly important but not to be used to undermine the merits. Definitely, who and why nominated and how the battle was fought are pertinent questions as when one takes a deep dig to rethink, the question extends to whether the top position of the country is tiptoed as a toyed position to a toppled state of affairs for quite many years now.

Recent election for the President

The two Presidential candidates for 2022-2027, Smt. Draupadi Murmu and Mr. Yashwant Sinha have undoubtedly accomplished careers. However, the way they were pitched for the post for s/election by the political allies raises deep concerns on the battle aka run/race for the position, taking away the dignity that the position calls for. For those having highest regards for the President of India, the unfolding of the bragging battle (literally a Dwand) for the Presidency is baffling.
Why/how/when election for President? From the beginning, there were no doubts on Smt. Murmu being the favorite in the battle and what that means to the current governing party. There should have been only one nomination, as rightly pointed out by Mr. Sinha during his campaigning tours. As one reads Mr. Sinha after losing talking about age and so on, why was then Mr. Sinha even nominated by the other parties? Shouldn’t age be an important criterion to be nominated and fight an election? It should be! Was Mr. Sinha nomination a symbolic gesture of opposing? Can’t the political leaders come to consensus for this one presidential candidate s/election? And, if there were two candidates, then the winner ofcourse will be the President and the runner up could be the Vice President. Why two set of elections? The country is becoming a Tamasha of elections with the politicians on the roads all the time only campaigning at public money and media houses only running them as sports at the cost of public resources. While Mr. Sinha chose to speak a lot across the country in this short campaigning time including scathing attack on the NDA’s governing approach, Smt. Murmu’s campaigns were more sabotaged by the political patronage. Then, the presidential election at a time of the parliamentary session distracted the important parliamentary discussions/ debates (becoming rare now) was not a good thing and further undermined the involvement of the President in the parliamentary activities as mere formality.

Official information on the position

Interestingly, the official website of the President of India does not spell out the roles and responsibilities of a President thus, citizens actually get to learn more about it from google searching where sites like edexe, byjus, tutorialspoint, quora, etc. pop up in top as they provide easy answers mostly written for competitive exams. The official website shows a great deal of pictures of the President attending celebrations, events, festivals, award ceremonies, inaugurations, summits, photo shooting, conferencing, etc. These are undoubtedly important activities of the position but at the same time paints a rosy royal-like image of the roles and responsibilities of the position, which in a way is also exploited by the political parties.
It is noticeable that the official website has more information on the Rashtrapati Bhavan as a Township (claiming sustainability-inclusivity) and the functioning of the President’s Secretariat than the Rashtrapati itself. Today when we see a President as a Sculpture in the great Heritage Structure of the Rashtrapati Bhavan, it is a serious question on the role and responsibilities of the President and what is on stake in that position. Reading through the lines tell that the President’s Secretariat has the key to the decisions and actions of the President which over the decades is seen that are also exploited by the political parties.
The official website of the President calls for major revamping to have more information on the roles and responsibilities and key decisions taken by the current and past Presidents. If compared with the official website of the Prime Minister of India, it is a pertinent question to ask if the position of the President is the highest, then at least the web presence must be in that proportion too. Note, the proportion of the images of the current Prime Minister and the former Prime Ministers which speaks volumes about the way the position of the President is also exploited by the political parties. It is understandable that one may have a personal website like Narendra Modi but what is not understandable and concerning is that the outgoing and incoming Presidents do not have their personal pages in the age of Digital India. In the former Presidents page, biographies of only last 3 presidents are available as independent websites and rest of the 10 past Presidents are just static names, so obviously, Wikipedia may be getting more eyeballs to learn about their life and works if anyone really wishes to know more.
Wondering, that the person in the position must be personified through a personal website, in other words citizens must know more about the President as a Public Figure including their roles and responsibilities through the official website than Wikipedia and media articles?

Roles and responsibilities and elections

With every election for the New Presidents, the discussion on the roles and responsibilities of the President emerges and gets into the cold boxes post the appointment ceremony until the next election. Also discussed are the perks of the position during and after the presidency. This is really embarrassing as the way it done by almost all the media, it skews further the dignity of the position for common citizens pushed to think of it as a ceremonial position which pushes to ask questions that are often raised around the election time, what does a President actually do? Do we really need a President? Can we afford a President?
As known among the common citizens now, a President’s position comes with a political patronage. Most countries have that kind of royal positions, like the UK, Japan, Netherlands, but the difference is that those royal families are inheritance and truly ceremonial now in the democratic governance yet having crucial role in crucial decisions. Unlike that, when Independent India created a position for President and Vice-President, their role in governance is much involved and stronger than it is exercised since the position is materialized. Is the President (of India) a mere figurehead and serves a ceremonial role? Colloquially it is perceived to be a position providing the best of the luxuries to sign all the documents that are put up by the political patrons.
The President is the Head, alias the first citizen of India heads the Defense forces besides the legislature, executive and judiciary of the country. With the Chief of Defence Staff position created, wonder whether the President be really having any control over the 3 defense decisions? Though, it is the President of India remains the supreme commander of the Armed Forces, the Chief of Defence Staff is the military's chief executive gets the actual operational and strategic authority over the defence forces. The way the first CDS has operated so far at the helm of the government, it limited the President’s role to appointment and not decision making. The mixed role of the CDS is now obvious with the government taking time to appoint the new CDS.
The executive power of the President includes important appointments like Prime Minister, Chief Justice, Minsters, Chief Commissioners and Lt. Governors of the UT’s. But the ugly election almost made it look that the political parties are appointing the President as can be also witnessed by comparing the number of statements made by the Ministers vis-à-vis the President Elect during the election campaigns.
The important legislative powers of the President include possibility to summon and prorogue the Parliament besides addressing the opening session of the Parliament. Importantly, all the Bills require the President’s assent to become an Act when the President’s duty is to carefully control these crucial reforms. However, it seems Presidents over the years have been pushed to sign a lot of things without allowing substantial time/powers to comment, suggest, improvise the issues coming from the ministerial processes. For example, in the recent time, the Farm Laws, the CAA-NRC, the Article 370, to name a few and even no independent statement on the Aksai Chin issue. Then, the way the Farm Laws were NOT discussed in the Parliament before making them Bills furthering later into Acts and then repealed after a year’s protest by the farmers, getting Presidential sign off hint clearly how the governing systems sidelined and undermined the powers of the President as a return of political patronage.
The important financial powers of the President include appointment of the Finance Commissioner and release funds out of the Contingency Fund of India. Wondering, if the Contingency Fund i.e. is the emergency fund constituted under Article 267(1) of the Indian Constitution is headed by the President, then whether the President should be also heading the National Disaster Management Fund (headed by the Prime Minister), Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund followed by PMCARES now? Why not being the head of the country?
Anyway, the important diplomatic power of the President includes all kinds of international treaties and agreements, representing the country on the International Forums, send Ambassadors and receives Diplomats. This is also puzzling as in the recent times the Prime Minister’s over 100 visits overweighs the President’s role in exercising the diplomatic powers? Wondering, what will be the President role in exercising the diplomatic powers lieu of the Prime Minister taking all the diplomatic decisions?
Anyway, moving further to the emergency powers of the President include, Article 352, Article 356, Article 360 to proclaim Emergency is least talked about and used once nationally between 1975-77, during the presidency of Dr. Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, the 5th President of India. The emergency also informs that the President since its inception has been pushed to a lot of decisions despite the fact of having more powers than the ministers. As scholars, political analysts and leaders are arguing the state of India's Undeclared Emergency around the several matters surrounding the unilateral governance owing to majority, it also makes I louder that when a party or an alliance has a Lok Sabha majority, the power of the president is extremely confined as also discussed in the legislative powers.
The most written role during an outgoing President is the pardoning powers. For example, Pranab Mukherjee, a veteran former Congress party leader/minister, considered to be an assertive president rejected a record 28 mercy pleas of death row, defied the advice of the government and commuted death sentences of 4 convicts. Pardoning a mercy petition is really not a power to assess a President’s roles and responsibilities.
Anyway, all the above pushes to discuss more on what is India’s President actually for which often gets raised before and after the battle to the presidency.

Do we really need a President?

Article 52 of the Indian Constitution states that there is a need for a President in India (There shall be a President of India) and the office of the President was created after India became a republic on January 26, 1950, after the constitution came into force. The constitution says that the primary duty of the President is to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution and the law of India. Wondering whether that duty is really taken seriously or can be taken seriously now given the political patronage? Have the Presidents really used the position’s veto power to assert decisions? They pose a question on whether the roles and responsibilities of the President need more public rigor, to better understand who should be eligible to s/elect a President and then who should be the presidential candidatures. Being a governmental post, should the s/election be made by the higher government position officials like the bureaucrats and defense personnel especially those who come in the jurisdiction of the President? Those who s/elect the highest post of the country should definitely not be the political netas, like the current ones with 40% having court cases on them.
Prof. James Manor, a professor at the London-based Institute of Commonwealth Studies, argued that the Presidency in India differs from most presidencies across the world. The president does not exercise executive powers as the head of the state, instead is required by the constitution to act on the advice of ministers. The role is more akin to that of the monarch/s in countries like England, the Netherlands or Spain as a referee over a parliamentary system where ministers possess the real power like it works in Germany and Israel also. According to him, Indian Presidents have been assertive on some issues right from Dr. Rajendra Prasad to Mr. Pranav Mukherjee. Some pertinent questions raised are, do we need an assertive or pliant president; should they be merely a titular head alias "rubber stamps"? And what happens when the president acts in an assertive and/or partisan manner? A good example, here is of KR Narayanan, arguably the most assertive presidents and not being in the tune of the government refused approval of President’s rule in Uttar Pradesh to the cabinet, asking the ministers to reconsider it and even saying, "I am not a rubber stamp."
With the Constitution of India coming into force in 1950 headed by then President Dr. Rajendra Prasad, to the time when Dr. Neelam Sanjiva Reddy was the President from 1977 to 1982 (probably the most difficult time alongside 3 Prime Ministers Morarji Desai, Charan Singh and Indira Gandhi), the president’s position has held dignity atleast in my heart because they were only read in the books and not realized in the bare reality. While Dr. Prasad made huge contributions to the constitution and the country building including being vocal on difference of opinions with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, slowly the contributions by the following Presidents seem diminishing to more in the recent time when their role is literally made tokenism and ceremonial. Way back, according to Jawaharlal Nehru a President is a "head that neither reigns nor governs” and holds a position of "authority or dignity" more than anything else. Now this is image is a hollow imagination and pertaining to the roles and responsibilities concerning to this date. Above that is also the layer of patriarchy in the presidency.

Way forward for a Woman President

The country has got 15 Presidents so far with now President Smt. Draupadi Murmu sworn in in as the second woman president in 75 years after Smt. Pratibha Devi Singh Patil was appointed after 50 years. There is undoubtedly a fair share of skepticism among the men of the political parties obliging her and she is challenged to get over this image given by men, media and the governing party. The undertone of the politics and patriarchy are clear as shown by just two dailies from Ahmedabad the day Smt. Murmu won the battle of presidency.
For example, in the "Times of India" on 22-07-22 (that comes to my house), the President elect doesn’t even find a front page and full page. Then, check this news on page 5, where the coporate’s photo tops the paper almost keeping an eye on the government, with the main news having more coverage to the PM not only graphically but also by the statement. The article has no statement from the President elect around so much blabbering. Then, on the side it mentions, First Tribal, Second Woman. Ironically, day after the swearing in of the new President, the TOI was not even interested to cover it as a headline in the newspaper, forget the front page.
Another example, from the Gujrati NewJ that writes headlines as, “The country will get the first tribal woman nationality, such a struggle is filled with see her story, she lost her husband and child in short time of marriage”. This is embarrassing. This is not the right headline to project a President elect. Indeed, it is sad that she lost her husband and sons, however they are not the merits for which she is s/elected as a president. Tell her merits based on which she rightly deserves the position. Stop the Abla Nari Syndrome and Male Chauvinism of obliging women. These examples clearly portray the patriarchy and political patronage that Madam President has to live with.

Way forward

Dear Madam President! Your arrival from the margins to the mainstream is a big hope to the indigenous (people) as well as women leaders of the country. Hope you plan to make a mark during your presidency by being more assertive to your decisions beyond the appointing, inaugurating, and pardoning alias ceremonial upheld as well as exploited by the governments since the creation of the position. Hope you will be exercising more of the defense, legislature, executive, judiciary, financial, diplomatic, and emergency roles to walk the largest democracy in the path of internal-international peace and prosperity. Importantly, hope you will do your best to overcome the patriarchy and political patronage in the government functioning and pave a path for the next many Female Presidents. The battle of presidency must have been intense among the reigning men in politics, hope you will still address at the soonest possible the point whether a President be still called a Rashtrapati? It is time to reform the word ‘Rashtrapati’ to a gender-neutral term for the men to even accept a President in real and then not use the position as a roll call especially in case of you being a woman. Congratulations once again and best wishes Smt. Draupadi Murmu, our President of India!
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*Entrepreneur | Researcher | Educator | Speaker| Mentor. More info on her learning and sharing are at: www.mansee.in

Comments

Ravindra R said…
Hope to see these changes in our politics

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