From according his assent to a spate of ordinances to clearing a decade-plus backlog of mercy petitions, President Pranab Mukherjee has largely acted on the aid and advice of the council of ministers in his 42 months in the Rashtrapati Bhavan.
Last year, he decided to make an exception when Gujarat’s controversial anti-terror bill, Gujarat Control of Terrorism and Organised Crime (GCTOC) Bill 2015, landed on his table.
The home ministry had recommended that the President grant his assent, but Mukherjee wasn’t entirely convinced.
The GCTOC Bill was strikingly similar to the bill that Narendra Modi — then chief minister — had first introduced in the Gujarat assembly in 2003. It was passed but the governor referred the bill to the President.
As a key minister in the Manmohan Singh government, Mukherjee had contributed to the UPA government’s decision not to grant the presidential assent. The home ministry made no secret of its concerns at the provisions of the anti-terror bill. It raised one query after the other, right from 2004 when it repealed the Prevention of Terrorism Act enacted by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government.
In all, according to the Gujarat government, the state was told about the President’s reservations to grant assent on three occasions: 2004, 2008 and 2009.
In her last communication in June 2009, President Pratibha Patil advised the state to bring its anti-terror law in line with the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act that had been made stringent after the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks. As chief minister, Modi saw the writing on the wall.
Instead, the BJP decided to use the anti-terror bill to build on the perception that the Congress was singling out the Opposition-ruled states and lacked the steely resolve needed to fight terrorism.
Neither Modi nor prominent BJP leaders lost any opportunity to badger the Congress.
“I would request the government not to discriminate states. This is not a good thing. Please do not play politics with the security of the people. The Gujarat Control of Organised Crime Act (GUJCOCA) was sent to the Central government, and the government has simply sent it back to the state,” senior BJP leader — and now parliamentary minister N Venkaiah Naidu — told the Rajya Sabha during a discussion on the Union budget in 2009.
The Anadiben Patel government revived the bill last year with minor tweaks after Modi moved to Delhi’s Raisina Hill.
Given how previous Presidents too had concerns about the provisions of the bill, Congress chief spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewala said he wasn’t surprised at the turn of events since it establishes a mindset to brutally curtail civil liberties while ruling in favour of a police state.
He added that some of the provisions reflected the Gujarat model founded upon illegal snooping, detention and police intimidation.