In many a conversation about the paralysis of Parliament or the confrontation in the judiciary, a question regularly pops up—why cannot the President act to make Parliament function, and make judges work together? After all, presidents enter office by taking an oath to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution and rule of law”.
Like his predecessors, however, Ram Nath Kovind—a lawyer and a parliamentarian before becoming President—has very little elbow room to make the organs of the Constitution function properly. The grand words of the oath mentioned in the Constitution itself are meaningless. The grandiose sentences in the Constitution make him part of Parliament along with the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha; the President is the supreme commander of the armed forces; all the business of the government is exercised by the President; and, he appoints the judges.
But, he cannot order even a platoon to move on his own. He is bound by the advice of the prime minister and ministers in all his duties, except in appointing or removing a prime minister. He can appoint judges, but cannot question or dismiss them. He can address Parliament, but cannot give directions, except when deciding whether a prime minister enjoys the confidence of the Lok Sabha or not.
The fetters that restrict the head of state are part of the checks and balances. Kovind can do nothing more than inviting the prime minister for a chat and give his advice, which Narendra Modi can take or drop. Leaders of political parties will be polite or impolite to his exhortations on allowing to run Parliament smoothly, depending on their equations with him. The country’s ninth president, Shankar Dayal Sharma, had succinctly noted that the president watches as the system muddles through to the right destination. Sharma’s predecessor, R. Venkataraman, had said in his memoirs that the president’s office is like an emergency lamp which switches on when the power supply fails, but switches off when normalcy returns. By that definition, 2018 has seen power failure in both Parliament and the Supreme Court.
However, in these days of instant communication, the right words by the president in private to the political parties and judges would at least galvanise public feeling with a sober public exhortation demanding more order in Parliament and more collegiality in the Supreme Court. But, Kovind will have to break from the silence imposed by the copybook tradition, so that he sets the right tone in a disturbed public discourse.