The President’s Republic Day-eve speech on January 25 is generally lost in the pageantry and pomp of the Republic Day parade on January 26. Compared to the Prime Minister’s Independence Day speech from the ramparts of the Red Fort in Delhi, the President’s speech remains a closeted affair. The President’s thoughts recede into the background. But this time around, President Ram Nath Kovind, delivering his first Republic Day-eve broadcast/telecast, has struck a thoughtful and impactful tone, and in the present political context of fierce contestations, which extends to the social and cultural spheres as well, President Kovind’s pronouncement on dealing with diversity and differences among citizens assumes importance, and even urgency.
He exhorted the need to “...not inconvenience our neighbours — while celebrating a festival or while resorting to a protest or on any other occasion. Where one can disagree with another viewpoint — or even with a historical context — without mocking a fellow citizen’s dignity and personal space. This is fraternity in action.” This has an admonitory dimension as well. President Kovind was not stating an abstract and an idealistic statement in a political and social vacuum. He must have kept in mind the social and cultural turmoil sputtering in many parts of the country, and without making specific references, he stated the principle of dealing with differences in a respectful way. He did not argue for sinking differences or removing them. In a mature polity, differences will remain and they should be allowed to remain as part of our collective life.
It is entirely possible to twist the President’s words to mean that he was indirectly telling the minorities — political, cultural and social — to tread with care and respect the majority’s view. He is saying something opposed to the majoritarian view. The majority in every field wants the minority shut up and fall in line. The President has made it clear that is not the way in a democracy, especially in a constitutional democracy, which is, to use the President’s carefully crafted phrase, based on the “majesty of the rule of law, and of rule by laws”. The President has also made it clear that it is not sufficient to grudgingly allow “personal space” to those with whom we differ. He enjoined that this has to be done “without mocking a fellow citizen’s dignity and personal space”.
The political establishment of the day, represented by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government that it leads, has got into the habit of brushing aside differences even while praising diversity. It is natural that a political party with a comfortable majority in the Lok Sabha has the tendency to dismiss differences as of no consequence. President Kovind’s emphasis on respecting differences should be taken as a gentle warning against any sense of complacency, verging on arrogance.
It is heartening indeed to hear the President’s own voice. It was assumed that President Kovind, who was never in the political limelight as vice-president M. Venkaiah Naidu, would remain an indistinct voice. But the President has made it clear that he will not be a quiet head of state who will say only those things which the government would want him to say because that is the supposed role envisaged by political convention. The Constitution, however, leaves enormous room for the President to exercise discretion, and to make his views known even when they do not prevail with regard to laws passed by Parliament. The President voicing the view of the government is confined to the President’s address to Parliament. President Kovind has exercised discretion in his Republic Day-eve speech.
This can be further seen in his remarks on hunger and malnutrition. He said: “We have made strides in tackling hunger, but the challenge of malnutrition and of bringing the right micronutrients to the plate of every child is still there.” And explains that this is important for “the physical and cognitive development of our children”. And he draws the plain and important conclusion: “We simply have to invest in our human capital.”
This should sober Prime Minister Modi and his Cabinet colleagues, who have already moved into election mode and are indulging in declamations about their unprecedented achievements. As the First Citizen of the country, President Kovind has rightly drawn ours, and that of the government’s, attention to the things that need to be done. He is implicitly following what the 19th century British Constitution enthusiast Walter Bagehot had said about the role of the monarch: “The sovereign has, under a constitutional monarchy such as ours, three rights — the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, and the right to warn”. The elected President under the Indian Constitutions fulfils a similar role.
In the last three-and-a-half years of the Narendra Modi government, the majority in all spheres has been trying to muffle the voices of criticism and dissent. It is a dangerous trend because it imperceptibly leads to the drowning out of different voices which is essential in a democracy. The Prime Minister and the ruling party have an obligation to set an example by taking cognisance of dissent and criticism because otherwise the fringe and loony elements who support the ideology of the BJP will take the cue that all opposing voices should be silenced. The silence of the BJP leaders even as the Karni Sena went on a rampage in BJP-ruled states sends out the message that mob hysteria is legitimate. President Kovind has quite rightly spoken out against this disturbing trend. Thank you, Mr President.