Neither a trumpet, nor rubber stamp

By Inder Jit
(Released on 28 February 1989)

The President, Mr. R. Venkataraman, has let down the Constitution,the two Houses of Parliament and the country in his inaugural address to the joint session of the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha last Tuesday. He has, no doubt, received a lot of flak for its disappointing content and tone from the print media, including friendly newspapers. The inaugural address has been criticized variously — a package of platitudes, something of a cock-a-hoop,or one that sounded like a Press Information Bureau handout. But the people and most commentators have missed out a basic point. The address sorely lacks what it is enjoined by the Constitution to contain. In fact, it deviates gravely from the original purpose of the address, the format envisaged by the founding fathers and long-established convention. What is worse, the President has allowed himself to be used by the Congress-I Government to effusively laud its rule over the past four years and virtually to pass off to the people of India in this election year as his address what is perhaps an advance version of the ruling party’s poll manifesto.
The Constitution at present provides under Article 86(1) for an address by the President to either House of Parliament or both Houses assembled together. It also makes it incumbent upon the President under Article 87 (1) to address both Houses assembled together at the commencement of the first session after each general election to the Lok Sabha and at the commencement of the first session of each year and “Inform Parliament of the causes of its summons”. Interestingly, the idea was not new and was inspired by the practice in Britain and by the provision for address by the Head of State to the Central Legislature when it was set up for the first time under the Government of India Act of 1919. The Act provided for the address by the Governor-General in his discretion to either House of the Central Legislature. Though there was no specific provision in the Act for the Governor General to address both Houses assembled together, in practice during the years 1921 to 1946, the Governor-General addressed the Lower House separately as well as both the Houses assembled together on a number of occasions.
Following independence in 1947, the Government of India Act, as adapted, provided that the Governor-General may address the DominionLegislature. In actuality, however, the Governor-General did not address the Constituent Assembly (Legislative) on any occasion between November 1947 and January 1950. The situation changed when free India’s Constitution came into force on January 26, 1950 and the President was required to address all the three sessions of the Provisional Parliament held during the year. Article 87(1) of the Constitution, as originally framed, required the President to address both Housesof Parliament assembled together “at the commencement of every session”. Nehru and his colleagues then felt that to have the President address both Houses as many as three times in a year involvedrepetition and time of the House, apart from causing administrative difficulties. The Constitution wasthen amended for the first time in 1951 to provide for the President’s address only at the commencement of the first session after each general election and of the first session each year.
Importantly, the power conferred on the President by Article 87 of the Constitution corresponds to the “Speech from the Throne” in Britain. The President’s speech, according to Basu’sauthoritative commentary on the Constitution, is intended to be the first pronouncement of the policy of the Government, both domestic and foreign, after each general election and also at the commencement of the first session of each year,which is usually, the Budget session. The British monarch still delivers the “Speech from the Throne” for opening or proroguing the session of Parliament even if he or she does not physically do so.(In the absence of the Sovereign, the speech is read by the Lord Chancellor) The Speech from the Throne is now used by the Government “to announce the causes of summons — ministerial policies,both external and internal,as also the legislative programme.” What is more,the address is worded in a manner so as “not to influence” the deliberations of Parliament or to interfere with them. Even an allusion to the King’s personal wishes in debate is forbidden.
In sharp and distressing contrast to the practice followed in Britain and during Nehru’s time,the character and content of the President’s address has undergone a sea change. It was originally intended to serve only a limited purpose: to inform Parliament of the “causes of its summons.” This was made explicitly clear in the Constitution and was to be done in two ways. First, by spelling out the Government business expected to be takenup during the session and beyond — until the next year. Second,by indicating the future policy of the Governmenton important issues. Yetthe address has degenerated into a lackluster review of the past year and a blatant propaganda blast for the Government.In the bargain,highly controversial statements are madetimeand again, provoking a sharp and,at times, violent reaction. In fact,the President’s address to the two Houses on February 21 touched a new low in flouting the Constitution. It even spoke of the past four years and made all manner of claims for theGovernment, including “unprecedented levels” ofeconomic achievement and growth.But it did not precisely informParliament about the causes of its summons.
Astonishingly, the President’s address even seeks to influence Parliament’s deliberations through value-based judgmentand assertions in favour of the Governmentand its policies.This is not to mention the faux pas in the unduly long address. The opening para states: “I welcomeyou to this session of Parliament. I extend to you my best wishes for the successful completion of the budgetary and legislative business which you have before you.” The two Houses had no budgetary business before them on February 21. I sat up again in the Press gallery as I heard the President say in para four: “As we enter the final year of this Parliament…” It is the final year of the Eight Lok Sabha, not of Parliament.The Rajya Sabha is a continuing House.And,Parliament comprises not only the two Houses but also the President. Further,the address asserts in para: “The voting age has been reduced to 18.” Parliament has, no doubt, passed the required legislation.But this has still to be approved by a majority of the States, according to the Government’s own interpretation, and presented to the Presidentfor his assent before it becomeslaw!
Sadly,mindless deviation from the original format is not limited to the Centre. It extends to the addresses by the Governors to the State Legislatures,where these have come to cause even bigger trouble. The Governor’s address, according to the Page Committee set up by the Speakers’ Conference in the sixties, is expected to “enumerate with precision all the legislative and other important business that the Government proposes to bring before the House during the year.” But this seldom happens. Instead,the Governor’s address, prepared by the Government of the day,has become increasingly political and controversial. Onone occasion, the Governor of West Bengal in 1969 felt constrained to skip over two paras of his address to the State Legislature as these attacked his own conduct earlier. The Constitutional and political aspects of the matterwere debated in the Lok Sabha.In his reply to the debate,the thenMinister of HomeAffairs stated that the address of the Head of State “is a public declaration of policy that the Government wants to follow in the coming year. The address is expected to look into the future and the present. But the two paragraphs tried to interpret history…”
Wheredo we gofrom here? The President at the Centre and the Governorin the States needto ponder and appropriately counsel their respective Governments in the matter. There is no occasion for the Governmentto get the President or the Governors to play Goebbels for themon the plea of reviewing the past year and projecting the future. Such a review is wholly unnecessary, especially when it is invariably made on Republic Day, barely a few weeks earlier. Someobservers feel that the President (or the Governor) could perhaps deliver the address,objectively in their personal capacity and reflect on the national scene as he sees it.But this alternative is likely to lead to more trouble and turmoil. The President (and the Governors) should be enabled to follow the healthy example of the British Queen’s message to Parliament whichdoes nomore thaninform the Commons of the causes of its summons and is a statement of fact. The address should reflect precisionand planning as also the Government’s directionand determination. The President and the Governors should not be involved in politics.
It has been argued that Mr.Venkataramanhad no choice but to read out the address prepared for himby the Government. This is not true. ThePresident is not as helpless as is made out. In fact,his oath of office empowers him “to preserve,protect and defendthe Constitution.” In the case in point, the President could easily have done two things.First,asked the Governmentto statethe cause of the summons of the two Houses in accordance with Article 87 (1) of the Constitution. Second,counseled the Government against reducing the address to a propaganda blast for the Congress-I. (Surprisingly, the President hasidentified himself totally with the Government in his address and spoken repeatedly in terms of “We shall….” In the addresses prepared by the Nehru Government and deliveredby Dr. RajendraPrasad, the President spoke invariably in terms of “My Government”.) All in all,a President is neither a trumpet of the Government nor a rubber stamp. He must firmly decline to do anything which compromises his prestige and credibility or erodes his high office and the Constitution. — INFA