KR Narayan: Assertive but Not Aggressive

“A President who chooses to play politics can make himself a formidable power because the only restraint which the parliament can exercise upon him is impeachment which requires a 3/4th majority and a President who has played his political game with skill can never fail to obtain such sufficient support in the Parliament to thwart (this)”

The Indian Republic is an advocate of the Westminster style of governance. This style of governance, adapted from the British version, elevates the Prime Minister to the status of a de facto elected monarch with the President, being a de jure executive, acts as a ‘rubber stamp’ of the Cabinet. However, due to certain unique trends in Indian Politics, this Westminster system can elevate the de jure authority into a de facto ruler with sprawling powers. 

The Indian Constitution confers three discretionary powers to the President of India. Firstly, she can ask the Council of Ministers headed by the Prime Minister to reconsider a piece of advice rendered to her. However, she is bound to sign the bill if it is resubmitted with or without considering her suggestions. Nonetheless, the Constitution of India doesn’t specify any time limit for the President to give assent to a bill, hence, she has the prerogative to withhold assent to the same. This is known as the pocket veto. Secondly, the President of India acts as a referee in the formation of the government. It is in her discretion to decide whether she should call the leader of the largest coalition or the leader of the largest party to form the government. Thirdly, it is in her jurisdiction to decide whether to grant or deny the dissolution request of the Prime Minister. 

The presidential activism had witnessed a substantive rise during the era of hung parliaments and coalition governments. While KR Narayan assumed the role of the primum civis in 1997, he announced that he intends to be a ‘working President’. He began to assert himself from the very next year when the Janata government led by IK Gujral asked him to impose Art. 356 (President’s rule) in the state of Uttar Pradesh. He sent the proposal back with a request to reconsider the same. Furthermore, he publicly announced that he ‘was not a rubber stamp’. 

In India, the President of the Republic of India traditionally addresses the nation on 14th August. By convention, she sends her text to the government for vetting. In 1998, KR Narayan chose not to make such an address and substituted it with an interview as it cannot be vetted in advance by the government. During the interview, he publicly proclaimed his discomfort with the Hindu nationalist ideology of the ruling party. The next day, at a meeting in the Central Hall of the Parliament to mark the end of India’s 50 years of Independent existence, he gave an address that was not vetted by the government. He criticized the people holding the public office (indirectly referring to the then government) who saw it as ‘an opportunity to strike gold’. Also, in 1999, KR Narayan asked the Prime Minister to establish through a vote in the Lok Sabha that he still had majority support.

In March 2000, President Clinton visited India. Narayan not only departed from the text prepared by the Ministry of External Affairs but after a series of positive references to the US, he remarked that:

“Globalization was fast reducing the world into a global village but one that did not need a headman”.

The speech stirred up a storm of anxiety in India’s External Affairs Ministry and the proclamation provoked rebukes from newspapers that had supported his earlier outspokenness. 

James Manor identifies three reasons behind the extra-constitutional assertiveness of KR Narayan. Firstly, he believed that the legitimacy of the government is in some doubt and it was his responsibility to raise moral concerns. Secondly, he comes from a disadvantaged community and he might’ve thought that he had a special responsibility to support the disadvantaged. Thirdly, he believed that he had been elected by a wider constituency- even though he was indirectly elected. He believed that a large number of MP’s and state legislators in his support constituted a larger political base than the BJP in power possessed. 

In toto, Presidential assertiveness is a reality in Indian Politics. With the weakening Prime Ministerial authority supplemented by a hung parliament where no majority would be easily obtainable, an ambitious President may play politics and can use his discretion to assist someone in becoming the Prime Minister on the understanding that the latter would permit the head of the State to wield greater influence in the matters of the government than the constitution intends. Such a President may even seize effective control over the government and its day-to-day affairs, surpassing the Council of Ministers. As mentioned in the beginning quotation, the only way to exercise restraint on the President of India is to impeach him and a President who knows to play politics can easily muster support in the Parliament, necessary to thwart the resolution. Also, it’s nearly impossible to obtain a 3/4th majority in a hung parliament led by a coalition government. Political uncertainty and instability at the national level, therefore, can produce assertive and strong Presidents, compromising the hitherto unrivalled authority of Prime Ministers, reducing the latter into the status of primus inter pares

References:

  • S.K. Chaube (2009), The Making and Working of the Indian Constitution, Delhi: National Book Trust [Ch. VIII: The Union Government I: The Executive, pp.100-131].
  • J. Manor, (2017), ‘The Presidency’, in D. Kapur, P.B. Mehta and M Vaishnav (eds.) Rethinking Public Institutions in India, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, pp. 33-66.
  • J. Manor (1994), ‘The Prime Minister and the President’, in B. Dua and J. Manor (eds.) Nehru to the Nineties: The Changing Office of the Prime Minister in India, Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, pp. 20-47.
  • H. Khare (2003), ‘Prime Minister and the Parliament: Redefining Accountability in the Age of Coalition Government’, in A. Mehra and G. Kueck (eds.) The Indian Parliament: A Comparative Perspective, New Delhi: Konark, pp. 350-368.