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Reflections on presidential helplessness
By Md Zeyaul Haque

Former President of India KR Narayanan admitted last fortnight that he felt helpless during the anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat, which occurred during the last months of his presidency.

He felt helpless because he could not do anything to save innocent lives and bring succour to them. Presidential helplessness was evident during the present President, Dr APJ Abdul Kalam’s visit to Gujarat on August 12-13, too.

The present president too could not do anything substantial and meaningful to bring succour to the survivors of the pogrom, which human rights groups and victims say was state-sponsored. President Kalam told victims he would pray to Allah for them.

Imagine the French or American president telling their citizens victimised by state-backed murderers that he would pray for them. They would instead ensure that the victims got compensation, were rehabilitated, and the culprits brought to book.

India’s president is a highly respected figurehead, but just a figurehead nonetheless. The real executive authority does not lie in him. In a way, he is more or less like the British monarch who will have to sign his own death warrant if the cabinet and parliament deem it necessary, so to say.

Raising the same point in Bangalore last fortnight at a symposium on media coverage of Gujarat carnage, former Chief Justice of India, Justice AM Ahmadi said he had made an appeal to the then President of India KR Naraynan to do something to stop the carnage and bring succour to victims.

KR Narayanan did act on the plea and approached the executive authority, the prime minister, to act on the SOS. However, no tangible action was taken by the prime minister and his government, the former Chief Justice regretted.

In fact, the prime minister tried to blame the victims in his infamous Goa speech on April 12 when he said "wherever there are Muslims, there is trouble." The Centre went to the extent of defending Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi, who is seen as the mastermind behind the killings.

That brings us back to the powerlessness of India’s president. ”As a president I have often felt helpless when so m any delegations come to me and tell their woes and I can’t do anything about it. Gujarat was a major example of the helplessness, Narayanan said.

Gujarat troubled him a lot because "it affects the future of the nation, unity of the nation, and I was most affected by events like that," Narayanan said. Gujarat made him feel "sad, agonised and ashamed," he added.

Gujarat and the related communal issues have troubled him the most "because it had larger implications.

The presidential helplessness was quite evident during President Kalam August 12-13 visit to Gujarat as well. As he was going round pogrom-affected places in Ahmedabad, a bomb exploded in one part of the city and a riot broke out in another. The president went wherever he was taken by the local authority, which meant not going to places the local administration did not want him to see.

Imagine President Charles de Gaulle being treated like that. Could anyone dare to do that to him and still hope to remain in office?

Also think, for a while, of President Franklin D Roosevelt. And think of the kind of power he would have wielded to build the elaborate edifice of the New Deal and the kind of power to hold it in place.

When the US Supreme Court opposed some provisions of the New Deal, Roosevelt thundered, ”I will close down the Supreme Court and send the judges packing.” It was that kind of power which finally pulled America out of the abyss of self-pity brought in by the Depression of the 1930s.

Or, think of the guts displayed by John F Kennedy in the face of white supremacists opposing his desegregation move in schools. He did not succumb to majoritarian tyranny and saw to it that America was desegregated and the movement for black civil rights met with success.

During a white supremacist protest against desegragation he saw a former US army brigadier among the protesters. ”Imagine that bastard leading a brigade, “ Kennedy fumed. It is that kind of power that pushes faltering societies ahead. That kind of power and that kind of moral conviction.

That conviction and that power are missing in India’s president. The result: marauding mobs on streets, state-backed murderers, collapse of rule of law. “Collapse of rule of law“ was what had happened in Gujarat, according to former Chief Justice of India, AM Ahmadi.

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