Amartya Sen: The President should be a voice for sanity and fairness

A strong President can inspire us to stand up for all sections of the people, says Amartya Sen

Updated - June 06, 2017 09:28 am IST

Published - June 06, 2017 12:05 am IST

Amartya Sen.

Amartya Sen.

The President of India has an elevated standing as head of the Republic, and should be a voice for sanity and fairness, says Amartya Sen, Nobel laureate and economist. In the run-up to the presidential election, he answered questions via email on the role of the President in a secular and federal democracy. An enlightened President has many things to do, but being a ‘rubber stamp’ is not one of them, he says. Excerpts from the interview :

President Pranab Mukherjee’s term ends soon. Given that the President has only a formal, titular role, is it better to look for a candidate outside the realm of active politics? Is opening up the position for writers, artists, public intellectuals and so on more desirable?

The President of India has an enormously important role in the leadership of the country. This is not only because of the particularly assigned duties of the President in special circumstances, as in a political crisis of governance, but also because of the elevated standing of the head of the Republic in motivating and inspiring the secular democracy of India, guided by the Constitution.

While a number of statesmen and politicians have played that role with distinction, going back to Rajendra Prasad (the first President of India), leaders of thought from other walks of life — including Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, Zakir Husain, and K.R. Narayanan (among others) — have also, by their prominent presence and stature, helped to lead India to remain faithful to itself — reminding the country of the vision of fairness that gave birth to democratic and secular India after its long and hard fight for independence.

At a time when sections of society are apprehensive about the secular credentials of the government at the Centre and there is criticism from abroad that religious freedom is under threat, what should be the role of the President in guiding the government and its policy? Should the President be activist by nature, or confine herself to the customary, constitutional role as a titular head of state?

There are indeed serious reasons for concerns and apprehensions right now, based on observing the violations of human rights and of traditional protections that are going on in the country. The targeted victims come typically from vulnerable sections of the society — from minority communities (particularly the poorer Muslims), Dalits and tribal people. The President has potentially a hugely important role in insisting on fair treatment of all the people in the country and the immediate stopping of what The New York Times has alarmingly described, in its widely-read lead editorial of the day, “vigilante justice in India.” The recognition that India’s image as a successful democratic country has dramatically declined across the world may be a minor concern (even though it does worry many Indians, and should have worried the Government of India as well), but the violations and wrongdoings themselves have reason to agitate all fair-minded people in India, whether they are themselves targeted or not. The President can be not only the face of India, but also a great voice for sanity and fairness.

What sort of candidate would you endorse? Will you prefer someone with an independent mind, someone who will not be a ‘rubber stamp’, or someone who will take a strict, constructionist view of the Constitution and abide by its letter?

Accountants need rubber stamps — a country does not. The President not only has to exercise his or her own judgment, and to recognise that within the provisions of the Indian Constitution, he or she has a much bigger role than simply rubber-stamping decisions taken by others. A President can be quite tough — and ultimately effective — in asking the government to reconsider its priorities, especially when rights and fair treatment of countrymen are threatened, and also — to take another area of serious transgressions — when education, science and freedom of thought are undermined. There were very illuminating — and quite long — discussions in the Constituent Assembly on why certain provisions and articulations were necessary to stop the continuation of old injustices and the avoidance of new inequities. That background is extremely important in interpreting not only the nastiness of what are increasingly becoming the new rules of governance in India, but also for the determination to pursue equity to which the Indian Constitution made such an important contribution. An enlightened and strong President will have many things to do — being a rubber stamp is not one of them.

Given that the electoral college for electing the President of India is drawn partly from the State Assemblies, the President’s office has a federal character. Doesn’t this place an onus on the President to defend the rights of States? In practice, Presidents are often asked to endorse decisions adverse to State governments: for instance, imposition of Article 356 and appointment of Governors without consulting Chief Ministers. What should the role of the President be in such situations?

You are absolutely right that the President of India has a natural role in ensuring India’s constitutional federalism. When dictates of the Centre run counter to the legitimate rights and the traditional spheres of the States, the President certainly has a protective role that cannot be obliterated by the commands of the Centre. It would be absurd for the President to be guided only by the orders of the Centre when the Centre is itself an interested party.

What qualities should a President have?

The election of a President involves practical politics, but there are issues that go well beyond that. In building our future, we have to be careful not to shed the strength we have got from our past. Rabindranath Tagore wanted us to fight for freedom for all, with reason and determination. Mahatma Gandhi taught India the importance of public protest whenever we face inequities and unfair treatment of vulnerable people (by the way, among the names suggested in the papers, Gopalkrishna Gandhi, the Mahatma’s grandson, would be an excellent standard-bearer, given his knowledge, experience and wisdom). The President of India should fit into this broad, non-sectarian picture, inspired by the history of our fearless and shared movement for independence (a history that some leading politicians in India seem to have forgotten). Within his or her constitutional as well as evocative roles, a strong President can make a major contribution in inspiring us to stand up for fairness for all sections of the people. If we do not ask anything from our President except being a rubber stamp, we are very likely to get nothing more than a decorated rubber stamp.

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