The Post of President

Matters of The Moment

Is it not high time to keep the post of President of the country distanced from the narrow outlook of those in power and petty politicking?

By Mrinal Roy

When we think we know
We cease to learn.
Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan

There are so many things amiss in our democracy. The benchmarks of good governance and democracy are measured by the strict separation of powers between the legislative, the executive and the judiciary as well as the independence of the country’s regulatory institutions such as the Central Bank and Commissions such as the Electoral Commission to assure free and fair elections, the Public Service Commission to ensure that all government recruitments are governed by the rules of meritocracy or the Auditor General’s Office to check all government spending in the year to ensure transparency and accountability of all those entrusted with the management of public funds. Government interference or hegemony over the country’s Establishment and key institutions undermine governance and sap the management acumen and efficiency of the country’s administrative machinery. It also seriously hobbles the growth and development prospects of the country.

The benchmarks of democracy are also measured by the calibre and impartiality of the Speaker as well as the manner he presides over the deliberations and business of the National Assembly and upholds the rights and privileges of all its Members. The apt manner that John Bercow, served as Speaker of the UK House of Commons for a decade until recently and in particular steered the deliberations of Parliament through the ups and downs of the Brexit debate has established new benchmarks for Speakers in parliamentary democracies across the world.

Hard act to follow

Mauritius however has its own role model in Sir Harilal Vaghjee, the first Mauritian Speaker of the then Legislative Assembly. During his path breaking 19-year tenure of office as Speaker from 1960 to 1979, he set high standards and benchmarks in the conduct of the affairs of the Assembly which have provided a guiding compass for subsequent Speakers. However, in the ensuing decades, these high benchmarks have only seldom been matched by those who followed him as Speaker.

The high benchmarks of democracy in a parliamentary system of government are also gauged by the choice and quality of the President of the country. The President of the Republic of Mauritius is the Head of State. He has limited powers. The choice of President should therefore transcend partisan politics. Far too often, the choice of President has been the object of communal arbitrage or a golden retirement scheme for former prime ministers or loyal senior politicians.

Rubber stamp or inspiring figure?

Is it not high time to keep the post of President of the country distanced from the narrow outlook of those in power and petty politicking? Shouldn’t the President have a more inspiring role than that of a rubber-stamping machine? Is it not high time for the nation to demand that the President of the country should not be chosen on the basis of community but on the basis of intellect, erudition and stature? Shouldn’t the President apart from being an inspiring national figure of immense scholarship and credentials also be a man (woman) of culture and wide ranging interests who not only rigorously safeguards the rights and principles enshrined in the Constitution but transcends parochial considerations to bond and inspire the people through innovative initiatives and cogent actions?

 Why not a President who above all acts as an ambassador of our harmonious and synergetic plurality and Mauritius as a microcosm of humanity enriched by its multicultural diversity and intercultural osmosis? Why not a President who remains tuned to the ground reality of the country and provides wise counsel to government in the light of his objective reading of the Mauritian situation with the simple intent of promoting the common good and a continuous improvement in the livelihoods and standard of living of people?

For example, Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and ‎Dr APJ Abdul Kalam have been outstanding Presidents of India. Their lives, ideals, principles, distinguished careers and broad range of achievements in a wide field of activities continue to inspire the people of India.

Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan was an Indian philosopher and statesman and one of India’s most eminent twentieth-century scholars of comparative religion and philosophy. In the course of a rich academic career, he was a lecturer in Comparative Religion at the University of Chicago in 1930. He then became the first Indian to hold a professorial chair at the University of Oxford from 1936 to 1952. He was also the Vice Chancellor of Banaras Hindu University from 1939 to 1948. He served as the second President of India from 1962-1967.

Dr APJ Abdul Kalam was a renowned aerospace scientist who served as the 11th President of India from 2002 to 2007. He was closely involved in India’s civilian space programme and military missile development efforts and its nuclear tests in 1998. Widely referred to as the “People’s President”, he returned to his civilian life of education, writing and public service after his term of office as President. He had a simple lifestyle and donated his last 8 years’ pension towards the development of his village, Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu and all his modest belongings including a flat. He remains a source of inspiration to Indians and generations of South Asians.

Isn’t it high time to choose an equally inspiring President who transcends party politics and is a game changing catalyst for policy choices which benefit people and country?

‘For great men, religion is a way of making friends;
Small people make religion a fighting tool
— Dr APJ Abdul Kalam


* * *

New corporate approach

The potent threats of climate change, the growing inequality in the world highlighted each year by Oxfam before the annual Davos World Economic Forum and the sustained people’s protests for a new socio-economic order and for democratic rights in various parts of the world are a wake-up call that the current profit-driven model of development, which leaves an increasing swathe of humanity on the wayside, is no longer sustainable. A model of doing business which does not have a potent social and environmental policy content and thrust in a context of widening inequality and an impending climate change disaster is therefore not sustainable.

The world is changing. In a recent article in The Economist, billionaire entrepreneurs, the deans and students of top business schools in the world are questioning the ‘American management education which programmes students to favour profit over the public good, especially at a time when capitalism is under attack’. A billionaire is suggesting hiking the corporate tax rate on social media giants (compared to cigarettes) to address homelessness. Young alumni at the Harvard Business School want ‘the place of work to reflect purpose and values’. Deans also highlight the responsibility of business schools to recognize and address the societal consequences of corporate actions. The leaders and owners of corporations therefore need to overhaul their present model of operation and take on board the concerns and existential needs of mainstream citizens.

Isn’t therefore high time for the local corporate sector to also wake up to these transformational changes in corporate thought in the United States? We therefore need to adopt a similar approach and corporate model of operation which contributes to the public good, cuts down the adverse fallouts of climate change, assures a fairer sharing of the fruits of prosperity with their personnel and helps improve the quality of life of people. It is equally important to ensure that the workers and the personnel are not shortchanged and benefit from a fair sharing of revenue for their hard work before corporate social responsibility (CSR) is deducted from surplus revenue.

CSR funds must therefore be managed by government to assure social justice and improved social welfare cover and not pander to selective do-gooding by the corporate sector. Inequality cannot be bridged through government freebies at public expense but by cogent social and economic policies to improve quality of life through better wages, quality healthcare cover and a better education system to improve employment opportunities or land reform to ensure affordable access to land etc.

On so many fronts in the country, a radically new approach is therefore urgently needed to meet the legitimate aspirations and needs of the people and promote the public good.

* Published in print edition on 22 November 2019

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