Tuesday, August 14, 2007

A.G. Noorani on presidential overreach

In this column about presidential overreach and ambitions (with several examples), A.G. Noorani is quite blunt about A.P.J. Abdul Kalam:

... [Kalam's] four major interventions reflect common traits — enormous self-assurance, disregard for the Constitution, the law and the Supreme Court’s rulings and a passion to set his own rules, though nothing in his career had equipped him on these matters. He decided to act as a ‘man of science’ prescribing order and certainty to all.


  1. Pratik . said...

    Missed the forest because of the trees, I would say. By blindly accepting the existing "laws", Noorani failed to appreciete the good that might have come of at least some of the cases, had Kalam been given a free hand.

  2. Ritwik said...

    What is the purpose of the link Abi? To show us excatly how biased Noorani is? Did you actually go through those examples?

    A president's call for a comprehensive policy on mercy petitions is classified as 'presidential overreach'. Another president's joke is construed (no doubt, Noorani must be the greatest psychologist since Freud) as reflective and indicative of all things he ever did as a president. Zail Singh's most serious transgression was not proclaiming that he wouldn't mind being a mere sweeper for his party president, but in contemplating the dismissal of Rajiv Gandhi's govenment. How one comes to know of contemplations, only Noorani knows. And a president's call for the government to step down (which is at worst, very naive) logically proceeds to a Radhakrishnan like setup where the president rules with the help of police and armed forces. Right. And this man is a 'constitutional expert'.

    And as for the RTI, the details of what to include and exclude are stil being hammered out. Changes have been made to the act since it was passed - are we to presume that the rest of the country has a right to voice their opinions and to try and influence the RTI act details, but the president doesn't even have the right to make a recommendation. No, this is wrong because of section 123 (2) sub clause b. I presume that if tomorrow a preseident is modern and courageous enough to recommend to the government that India's laws on homosexuality need to be revamped, he would be in violation of Section 377(a), and this would be a clear case of presidential overreach and ambition.

    And witness this part of dense prose - "The clamour for clarity and certitude does not reckon with the complexities of crime and of the power of pardon, subjects of criminal law and constitutional law to which the colossal erudition unfortunately did not extend". The man is an expert not just on the constitution, but also on alliteration, presumably.

    Seriously, Abi - why?

  3. Rahul Siddharthan said...

    The above comments reflect peoples' cynicism about our elected representatives -- but even if the cynicism is justified, dictatorship by an unelected president is not the answer. The president's powers are limited for very good reasons.

    I personally was shocked and surprised by the claim that Kalam wanted the Vajpayee government to step down during the 2004 elections. Is there any reference for this, other than the article by Vir Sanghvi that he cites?

  4. Ritwik said...


    I request you to not use the term 'dictatorship' lightly. I read the entire article in absolute disbelief before I made the comment. If you look at the nature of the incidents that Noorani describes as presidential overreach, qualified by such beautiful subjectivities as 'contemplated', 'joked', 'called for' etc., perhaps you will understand that it is possible to vehemently disagree with constitutional experts without being cynical.

    Also, this is a country where someone like Pratibha Patil can become the president with the blessings of the ruling party. Please do not tell me that you seriously believe that any president could even try to impose a 'dictatorship' here.

  5. Rahul Siddharthan said...

    I am not using the word "dictatorship" lightly. If the president, who has not been elected by the people, is allowed to overrule Parliament, it is undemocratic.

    I did look at the incidents Noorani cites, and mentioned one in my comment. Here are my comments on the others: Rajendra Prasad wanted to expand the Presidential powers, after the Constituent Assembly had settled the matter. Radhakrishnan, even if he was joking in hoping for President's rule, should have made such jokes to the US ambassador. Besides, he was not a career administrator and there is no reason to think he would have made a good ruler. Nor should he have asked the Air Marshal to brief him on the war in the US ambassador's presence. The tension between Zail Singh and Rajiv Gandhi is well documented, but it is astonishing that he could consider dismissing the government.

    As for Kalam -- Noorani cites four transgressions, of which I mentioned the seemingly most egregious above. Kalam's sitting on the Office of Profit bill is well known; he acted correctly in asking for reconsideration, but once Parliament sends it back to him, constitutionally he has no choice but to give his assent. He seemed to completely misunderstand the meaning of "mercy petitions" -- Noorani correctly points out that these have to be a matter of individual judgement, by their very nature; the legal position in all these cases is clear and the petitioner has already been sentenced according to the law of the land. As for the RTI case, it depends on how Abdul Kalam framed that note: was it a suggestion, or a recommendation, or a requirement? He cannot require anything and it is improper of him to make a recommendation.

    Noorani's point is that Kalam had the arrogance of assuming that he understood the law and the constitution, which he did not, and this led him to overstep the limits of the President's role. It is hard to disagree.

  6. Abi said...

    Pratik, Ritwik: The institution of presidency is subject to lots of constraints. I don't know the constitutional principles they flow from, but I for one am quite glad they exist. This is for the simple reason that the president is not a "people's representative". Noorani cites many examples of overreach (of varying degree of seriousness) by several different presidents, and I am with him on some of them (the Vajpayee incident), but not quite with him on others (his 'suggestion' on the RTI law, for example, where the details are a bit too murky for me).

    The smartness of the president is not -- and cannot be -- the issue here; however smart the president is, we are all better off if he/she sticks to the mandate of the office. It is important to prevent bad precedents from being set, because they can boomerang on us when a really bad/nasty person manages to get to this office.

    Rahul has covered a lot of points very well; let me just say I agree with much of what he says.

  7. Anonymous said...

    It would, nevertheless, be interesting to see whether the "people's representatives" have the confidence of a majority or whether the vote of confidence would go to Kalam.