The inauguration ceremony of the President should move closer to the people

A bumpy RAF plane from Calcutta brought to Delhi the first Indian to take the oaths of office in India’s Government House, as Rashtrapati Bhavan was then called.

Chakravarti Rajagopalachari, Governor of West Bengal, had been pressed by Prime Minister Nehru and Deputy Prime Minister Patel to accept the appointment of Governor General of India, succeeding Lord Mountbatten. On April 11, 1948, Nehru wrote to Rajaji: “I do hope you will not disappoint us. We want you here to help us in many ways…”

He was met on landing at the Safdarjang airport by Governor General Mountbatten, Nehru and Patel. Within seconds, the radiant young Admiral did a disappearing act to take his position at the head of the red-carpeted grand staircase of Government House to receive its brooding new occupant. Nehru drove with Rajaji to the foot of the stairs lined on both sides by statuesque guards. The swearing-in took place the following morning in the Durbar Hall just beneath the building’s great dome. Rajaji wore what he had always worn – a white khadi jubba and dhoti. His white angavastram resting over his left shoulder, he moved up to the heavily brocaded red throne to take his oaths and say a few words to his people. “I pray” he said, that he would “steer clear of error” in his service to an India “unchangeably committed to…making everyone within her borders find pride and joy in citizenship.”

During his days in that house, Rajaji ennobled the Durbar Hall with a new acquisition. This was a standing 4th century figure from Mathura of Gautama the Buddha. The Sakyamuni, he felt, will help the first citizen cherish the beauty of relinquishment.

Before two years were out, time came for Rajaji himself to face that noble truth. Rajendra Prasad, as loved as he was respected was to be his successor. The ceremony of inducting Rajen Babu was preceded by a quaint transaction. General Cariappa took it upon himself to advise Rajen Babu that he wear an achkan with a blue or grey sash emblazoned with the chakra. Rajen Babu consulted the Prime Minister Nehru. To the relief of good taste and the comfort of sartorial wisdom, Nehru advised against the embellishment. A photograph — the gift of pure chance — has captured Rajaji turning his head towards the statue of the abnegating Buddha, as an un-sashed Rajen Babu draws the colours of office from his predecessor into his own person.

Once again on a plane, this time bound for his hometown of Madras, Rajaji penned a letter: “My dear Rajen Babu…I go out with joy in my heart at the beautiful manner in which the little change-over has taken place. There was nothing to mar the beauty of it. God bless you all…”

Eleven Presidents have been through the “little change-over” since that day.

Have the ceremonies been “beautiful”?

Durbar Hall to Central Hall

It would be truer to call them spectacular rather than beautiful. And they have certainly not been “little” in size. For one thing the venue for the changeover was shifted from the Durbar Hall of Rashtrapati Bhavan to the Central Hall of the Parliament of India. This was a handsome Republican gesture to the electors of the President.

President Radhakrishnan’s inauguration in 1962 was accompanied by an additional ceremony in which the President’s first official act was to decorate outgoing President Prasad with the Bharat Ratna. A photograph of the two of them framed in a door of Parliament House shows the strikingly handsome new President saluting as to the manner born and the outgoing one, wearied with age and wearing, almost like a weight, the country’s highest decoration round his neck.

Over the years, the ceremony of the President’s induction has become a rite of repetitive passage where courtesy is apparent but zest missing, regard is patent but enthusiasm deficient. Regalia is one thing, rapture another. Splendour is one thing, spirit another. A piece of skilful choreography is one thing, a soulful ceremony quite another.

The fainting of an invitee on account of stifling heat and a strangulating bandgala during President Venkataraman’s swearing-in, and the clear absence of enthusiasm at President Patil’s historic inaugural 20 years later only underscored the staleness of orchestrated panoply.

This is not a failing of the physical arrangements for our Presidential inaugurations. It is a reflection of the essential hollowness of all ritual where its inner meaning remains un-understood. One cannot expect the remote fruit of an indirect election to enthuse, much less inspire a billion people. The election and swearing-in of President K.R. Narayanan was a refreshing exception.

Presidential elections now see appeals to the political mind. They are all about the political mind, not about the political heart, if such a thing is left in our body politic, not to speak of political ‘soul’. They are about the give and take of support, assurances and collaboration. With the President’s electors seated on rows upon rows before the President-elect, his inaugural accurately reflects India’s political geography, its abacus, or the counting-frame of power. It does not represent India’s aspirational astronomy, the scattered arrangement of its stellar hopes.

The inauguration ceremony moved, as we have seen, from the Durbar Hall of Rashtrapati Bhavan to the Central Hall of Parliament. This was a democratic shift. The time has perhaps now come for it to make another tectonic shift, nearer the people. Why should the ceremony take place not just before the President’s electors but before the electors’ electors? Can it not be held at the Lal Qila and, if that spot is exclusively identified with the Prime Minister, then, at the Purana Qila?

India deserves a Presidential inaugural where the bugle sounds but the spoken word echoes as well. Where, if hands clap in rhythmic unison, hearts miss a beat or two as well. And above all, where we see in the chosen one a detachment about the office being entered, not a nervous restlessness to enter it.

(The author is a former Governor of West Bengal.)

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