Edited & brought to you by ilaxi
Byline by M.J.Akbar:President Kalam must resign
An alibi is the respectable sister of a scapegoat. Hunting the scapegoat is a common aspect of politics all over the world.
There is nothing particularly Indian, or partisan, about it. Anyone seeking to wound a chief executive must slaughter a clutch of scapegoats that line the path to his or her office. That is ritual procedure.
Opposition leaders were quick to demand the resignation, in order of merit, of Lalu Prasad Yadav, the don of Bihar; Buta Singh, the governor of Bihar; and Dr Manmohan Singh, the Prime Minister of India after the Supreme Court decision striking down the proclamation by the President of India on May 23 dissolving a Bihar Assembly that had been duly elected but not yet sworn in. The Opposition leaders are missing the point. The person who should resign, if he has any respect for the office that he holds, is the President of India, Dr Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam.
The Bihar Assembly was not dissolved by the wish of Lalu Prasad, the obedience of Buta Singh or the recommendation of the Prime Minister. All three may have been politically necessary for the decision. But the order came with the signature of the President of India. It was his decision, taken in atrocious circumstances, that has stained the history of Indian democracy.
It did not require a decision of the Supreme Court to see that the President was wrong. Common sense could have suggested this. The members of the aborted House had been properly elected in a legitimate election. An election is not complete until the elected members are sworn in. Instead of completing the process, the election was arbitrarily revoked and the will of the people suborned. Bihar is famous for rigging. This was unique in the sense that the rigging was done after the results were declared. This was appalling, in that the President of India rigged the outcome. The others — governor, Cabinet, Prime Minister — gave their recommendation. The President of India took the decision.
The manner in which he took the decision was utterly reprehensible. The President was in Moscow on the night of May 22-23 when the Cabinet decided that the Bihar Assembly should be dissolved even before it had met. The President was woken up at night to sign the proclamation. Why did he do it immediately, at that unseemly hour? Why could he not wait for daybreak and send the Cabinet’s recommendation for legal opinion, which he was fully within his rights to do? It was not as if he was being told to declare war, unless of course it was war on the Bihar voter. The political crisis in Bihar had simmered for a long while. Buta Singh had sent his report to Delhi that no party or coalition had secured a majority on 6 March, and there was President’s Rule in Bihar from 7 March. Parliament had approved this by 21 March, and there was no need to return to Parliament for an extension for some months. There was absolutely no time compulsion. The President could have taken a decision on his return from his foreign tour. And while he is bound to accept a recommendation of the Cabinet, he also has the right to check the legality of any recommendation and indicate his personal displeasure by returning it to the Cabinet for reconsideration. If the Cabinet insisted, the President would have no option but to sign, but he would have upheld the dignity of his office as well reinforced the concept of check and balance that is essential to prevent any tendency towards dictatorship. The President abdicated the dignity and demands of his office when he put a hurried signature to an act of blatantly political manipulation.
Why is the political class less culpable? Precisely because it is political. Power is its dharma, and that is both understood and accepted. Lalu Yadav’s sole desire was to retain office after losing an election he had bungled. If Nitish Kumar had been in his place, or a BJP leader, he would have done the same. The BJP’s behaviour in next-door Jharkhand has been as cynical. Lalu Yadav used his clout as an ally in Delhi to bully Mrs Sonia Gandhi and Dr Manmohan Singh to rush through a shoddy Cabinet decision only in order to pre-empt his opponents, who were on the verge of cobbling together an alternative coalition. There was nothing more idealistic in the stampede.
Equally, it would have been extraordinarily foolish of Dr Manmohan Singh to risk his coalition for the proprieties of Bihar. I am certain about Dr Singh’s personal views. Privately, he could never have approved of what he was being forced to do publicly. But he is not naïve. He does not believe in sending an invitation to civil war. He went by the letter and passed on the Cabinet’s recommendation to the President.
Why has the Constitution of India found room for a President and vested in him the "Executive power of the Union"? After all, the President is not directly elected by the people, and logically it is the Prime Minister, a creature of a directly elected Lok Sabha, who should be the final arbiter of executive power. But the office of the President was created not to teach schoolchildren how to live a better life, although that is always a good thing to do. It was created because the system needed a person who was solely the guardian of the Constitution rather than the representative of the legislature. While taking his oath, the President swears to "protect and defend the Constitution and the law", not the Parliament or the government. The framers of our Constitution knew that an elected executive would be occasionally tempted to bend the law to suit a political purpose and created a President to prevent such deviation. It gave the President the means to do so, by permitting him to seek legal opinion in case of any doubt from a Constitutional authority. President Kalam did no such thing when faced by an obvious malfeasance. If his doubts had been placed on the record, then he would have done his duty, and indeed the Supreme Court would have exonerated those doubts.
The fact is that the politicians have flouted the law and won the politics, because the fresh elections to the Bihar Assembly have not been stopped. They could not be, because the Supreme Court has to be at all times cognisant of realities. So Lalu has got the second chance he wanted, and corrected some of his mistakes in the search for a different outcome.
What guarantee is there that what has happened in Bihar cannot be repeated at the national level by another President? We are in coalition politics, in which deals will be made both before and after elections. (In Germany the Congress and the BJP are trying to patch together the grandest deal of all.) What if a President seeks to subvert the will of a general election by dissolving the House before MPs are sworn in?
You cannot be disillusioned if you are not illusioned. President Kalam was good enough to induce illusions. Like the rest of my countrymen, I do believe that he is a sincere and honest man, a simple man who has been placed amidst pomp and majesty by the curious dance of fate. I do not believe that he has been spoilt by his circumstances, or that he has been tempted by the luxury around him to the point where he has, like so many politicians, placed his conscience hostage to the luxury of office.
He has sought, during his term in office, to be a role model to the most precious asset of a nation, its children, its future generations. He has told them over and over again to place principle over gain. This is the moment for the President of India to teach those children he loves by the example of his own convictions.
The Supreme Court of India has indicted the President of India. Either the President takes a stand and says that the Supreme Court is wrong, and must be held accountable for bias and misjudgment. Or he should accept the validity of the judgment and hold himself accountable. It would have been meaningless to present this choice before those of our past Presidents who were politicians. The one exception would be, of course, President Rajendra Prasad, who belonged to the cloth of Gandhi and therefore had principles. This question could have been placed before the academicians, Dr Radhakrishnan and Dr Zakir Hussain. All three would have chosen principle over power. But only a very naïve commentator would have demanded such standards from Giani Zail Singh.
The choice is before President Kalam. He can choose to be remembered as Dr Radhakrishnan and Dr Zakir Hussain are. Or he can hide behind an alibi and be forgotten, as Giani Zail Singh is.