Early Political Writings. 1890 — May 1908
Bande Mataram. April 3, 1908
The Question of the President
The union of the two parties in the Congress is now in sight. If the Convention Committee which is about to meet at Allahabad, will be guided by the country and not by the single will of one masterful and obstinate personality, the reconciliation of the parties is certain. When this desirable consummation is brought about, the next step will be the formation of a Constitution under which a harmonious working may be possible. We have already formulated what in our opinion should be the principles of the Constitution; the basis should be democratic and not oligarchic, the scope of the Congress should be widened so as to embrace actual work, the aim left indeterminate. It is the function of this body to gather around it the strength of the nation, and no creed should be promulgated which would have the result of excluding any section of the people.
Taking these principles as our starting-point, we shall proceed to discuss the chief questions which must be settled in order to ensure harmonious working between the two parties. The first issue which will present itself is the choice of a President. In his speech at the Federation Ground, Sj. Bepin1 Chandra Pal threw out a suggestion which he thought might obviate the difficulties which now attend the choice of a President. The present method of election is wholly unsatisfactory. A Reception Committee formed on the basis of wealth, not of democratic election is the primary authority; and the choice of the President is determined by a three-fourths majority which it is under present circumstances impossible to secure. Failing this impossibility, the All-India Congress Committee proceeds to nominate a President who may be the choice not of the country but of a party, and the nomination is confirmed by the consent of the Congress which the Moderates declare to be a mere formality of election not implying any right of the delegates to withhold their consent or reverse the decision of the Committee. This method of election is about the most irrational, undemocratic and perversely unconstitutional which can be imagined. The whole value of a democratic constitution lies in the relation of the parts of the commonwealth to each other on the basis of a definite delegation of power by the people to its officials, magistrates or governing bodies. The present system eliminates the sovereignty of the people altogether; it sets up an irresponsible body temporarily created for a different purpose as the primary authority and creates in the All-India Committee a power of final election which makes it independent of the people.
Srijut Bepin2 Chandra proposes to leave the election of the President to the Reception Committee, permitting the anomaly to continue for the sake of peace; but the voice of the people is not to be entirely silent, inoperative in the election, it finds its opportunity in the criticism of the President's address which is to be open to discussion and amendment like the King's Speech in Parliament. This right of criticism and amendment will act as a check on the party proclivities of the President and tend to bring his speech to the colourless nature of a pronouncement embracing what the whole nation is agreed upon and omitting the points of difference which still divide men's minds. It is possible that an obstinate President might face the disagreeable certainty of a division on his address, in which case the check would not work; but this would be too unlikely a possibility to be a serious drawback to Sj. Bepin3 Chandra's proposal. The defect in it as a complete solution lies elsewhere, it provides against the misuse of the Presidential chair to deliver a party pronouncement wounding to the susceptibilities of a part of the audience, but it does not provide against the misuse of the Presidential authority to prevent the passing of resolutions disagreeable to the party to which the President for the year happens to belong. This can be done, however, without altering Bepin4 Babu's suggestion.
There are two aspects of the Presidential position. In one he is the spokesman of the nation issuing a manifesto on its behalf with regard to the questions of the day. The Moderate Party usually tries to belittle this aspect by the contention that the President's speech binds no one but himself. If that is so, then he has no right to take up a whole day of the brief time available for work with utterances and opinions which are of no conceivable importance to the country or the world at large. Either the President's speech is a national manifesto and should be denuded of its party character, or it is a personal expression of opinion and should be either eliminated altogether or reduced to the brief proportions of an acknowledgement of the honour done to him in his election, so that the Congress may at once proceed to real business. In that case the President will become a Speaker of the House and nothing more, which he is at present, but only in his second and subordinate capacity. In this secondary capacity he is master of the deliberations of the Congress and can, if he so wishes, try to rule out of court or declare as lost without division any proposal or amendment which is displeasing to his party. Indeed, as everybody knows, it is this which has been at the root of all the bitterness that has gathered round the question and which led to the fracas at Surat. It will not therefore be enough to provide against the party character of the address, it is still more necessary to provide against the party use of the President's authority. In the House of Commons the Speaker is a non-party man whose sole business is to interpret impartially the rules of the House, and, if we are to avoid the repetition of such scenes as took place at Surat, the President of the Congress must be compelled to assume the same character. The difficulties in the way are two: first, the absence of any well-understood rules of procedure in the Congress; secondly, the absence of a strong public opinion which would unanimously resent the misuse of his authority whatever party might be benefited. If the now unwritten procedure of the Congress is reduced to writing and provision made for the right of delegates to lay their views in due form before the Congress, the first difficulty may be got rid of, and a very necessary step taken in the democratisation of the Congress. But the interpretation of the rules is always liable to misuse, as all free countries have found, and the only safeguard against it is a strong sense of the supreme importance of free discussion which will override party feeling and discourage the temptation to acquiesce in anything which will bring about a party victory. To develop such a feeling will take time. In the meanwhile such checks should be devised as would both deter the President from misusing his authority and foster the growth of a public sentiment such as governs the proceedings of free assemblies in free countries; Mr. Tilak at the Surat Congress appealed to the Congress against the decision of the Chairman of the Reception Committee, disallowing his notice for the adjournment of the election of the President. This right which is inherent in every free assembly, ought to be specifically recognised5. We cannot find a better means of checking any tendency to abuse authority than the knowledge that an appeal lies against one's decision to the whole assembly of the delegates, nor any stronger incentive to the growth of the public sentiment we desire to create than the knowledge that the final responsibility for dishonest party tactics will rest on the whole body of the delegates. If these precautions are added to the suggestion of Srijut Bepin6 Chandra the difficulties at present arising out of the anomalous election of the President will largely disappear. At the same time, the anomaly remains and if we overlook it for the present for the sake of peace, it should be clearly recognised that the present system can only be a temporary device pending the growth of a definite electorate in the country which can take over the function of electing the President.
The suggestions we put forward therefore are that the President should be elected by a bare majority of the Reception Committee or, failing a clear majority in favour of one name over all others combined, by the All-India Congress Committee; that the President take his seat the moment the Congress sits, before the Chairman of the Reception Committee begins his address of welcome; that the address of the President after delivery be open to formal discussion, in other words, that the Congress be asked to accept the address and that the right of amendment be permitted; that the President be governed by definite rules of procedure, and that his decision be subject to an appeal to the whole House.
Later edition of this work: The Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo.- Set in 37 volumes.- Volumes 6-7.- Bande Mataram: Political Writings and Speeches. 1890–1908 .- Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 2002.- 1182 p.
1 2002 ed. CWSA, vol.6-7: Bipin
2 2002 ed. CWSA, vol.6-7: Bipin
3 2002 ed. CWSA, vol.6-7: Bipin
4 2002 ed. CWSA, vol.6-7: Bipin
5 2002 ed. CWSA, vol.6-7: recognized
6 2002 ed. CWSA, vol.6-7: Bipin