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Mainstream, VOL L, No 31, July 21, 2012

History and Politics of Indian Presidents

Friday 27 July 2012


by Vivek Kumar Srivastava

On January 24, 1950 when India was on the eve of becoming a Republic, Dr Rajendra Prasad was elected as the President of the Republic of India. H.V.R. lyengar, Returning Officer and Secretary, Constitutent Assembly, announced that only one nomination paper was received for the office of the President of India. His nomination was proposed by Pandit Nehru and seconded by Sardar Patel.
Second May is a very important day in the constitutional history of India as on this day the election of the first President was organised in 1952. There were five candidates which included Dr Rajendra Prasad, K.T. Shah, Thatte Lakshman Ganesh, Hari Ram and Krishna Kumar Chatterjee.

The election of the first President was an important event. It aimed to establish an institution of parliamentary democracy which reflected the highest position under the republic, a position available to all citizens of India. Pandit Nehru, Maulana Azad and Satyendra Nath Sinha proposed the paper to the Returning Officer, M.N. Kaul, Secretary to Parliament, though prior to it Nehru had taken permission from Rajendra Prasad for his proposed name for the post. Dr Rajendra Prasad entered the office of the President on May 13, 1952.

The Indian PM was a man of democratic character who believed in consensus for running the newly born democracy where establishment and development of institutions of democratic order were the need of the hour. Therefore the elections of Dr Rajendra Prasad and Dr Radhakrishnan were an effort to select the best for the twin positions of President and Vice-President. During that age of democratic infancy the relationship pattern between the President and PM were not given adequate critical thought. The Constitution was still in its written form, its spirit and impact had yet to percolate.

After the election of Dr Rajendra Prasad, it became gradually evident that Dr Prasad was an independent personality and he was not mesmerised or supposed to be loyal to the PM, Pandit Nehru. He was a man of analytical thinking who believed that the President was not bound to accept all the pieces of advice of the Prime Minister and his Council of Ministers. His fond desire to involve the common man in his oath-taking ceremony by holding it in the open and his views on certain matters as the Hindu Code Bill and statement in the Indian Law Institute reflected these trends. His address on November 28, 1960 at the foundation stone laying ceremony of the Indian Law Institute signalled his thoughts about the position of the President. He viewed the independent existence of the President, he concluded in his address that the President was not bound by the advice of the Council of Ministers. His statement stirred great debates; although he did not stretch this issue, finally in the legal manner it was settled that the President was a constitutional head only.

Although he demonstrated that the President could influence the government in several matters if it did not accord due respect and authority to the President, he succeeded in impressing the Cabinet that appointments of high officials should be communicated to him which he thought was not the case. He was being denied proper communication in this matter. He was keen to display an active role for the President though within the parliamentary traditions; he wanted to watch the proceedings of Parliament so that he, as the President, could come to know directly in what manner the government and its representatives were behaving with respect to governance. He was of the explicit opinion that the President, being an integral part of Parliament, should be directly involved in such proceedings. He, however, withdrew his suggestion when the Cabinet refused it.

He, like Nehru, was devoted to institution-building and wanted to carve out a special niche for the President in the overall governing structure but never at the cost of the democratic fabric and parliamentary system of the nation. The same tradition was followed by his successor, Dr Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan. He was in the league of the philosopher king Plato, and Nehru respected him in the same fashion. He was a man of thought-provoking ideas and possessed deep philosophical roots. He was well-versed in international politics and the ancient Indian political system; hence he viewed this office as a place for the consolidation of these values and lasting democratic traditions. He was not servile to anyone like his predecessor. He even criticised government functioning on many occasions but provided a great strength to the country during moments of crisis by his strong and influential personality. Two wars were fought during his tenure, with China in 1962 and Pakistan in 1965. He emerged as a strong pillar of the country by his lectures, statements and personality. His role was exemplary. He did not allow the office of the President to fall into the ceremonial trap but discovered those areas where it could act in a positive manner without encroaching into the territory of the executive. He was an active President like Prasad; he even criticised Nehru’s China policy in the sharpest terms. When the Swantantra Party MLAs of Rajasthan under Mrs Gayatri Devi came to parade in front of him in order to show their majority, an unusual act in the Indian polity at that time, he knew well that it was an act against the Congress and Mrs Gandhi took a prudent decision and asked them to prove their majority in the State Assembly. He possessed a charm and dignity which were reflected in the office of the President. Even Mrs Gandhi, like Nehru, might have had certain reservations about him but she never went into any confrontation with him. He was the first President who earned respect as the People’s President; still he never allowed this institution to develop into a parallel centre of power.

The President of India by now had placed itself in an active position with a separate domain. It was equally established that the President was not a weak authority but both Dr Rajendra Prasad and Dr Radhakrishnan had decided not to interfere in government functioning.

The contribution to such institution-building goes to those great democrats who nurtured Indian democracy in its initial years, Dr Rajendra Prasad, Pandit Nehru and Dr Radhakrishnan. They differed on many counts but they respected the constitutional values and immensely helped in strengthening the political system. The President and Prime Minister accommodated each other while maintaining their separate domains.

The first decline in the stature of the President was observed when Mrs Indira Gandhi selected Varahagiri Venkata Giri as the candidate of her choice. The selection of Giri was the result of the internal politics of the Congress. After the Bangalore Congress session in 1969 where her proposal for nationalisation of banks was not accepted by the opposite group—the Syndicate, which included senior Congress leaders opposed to her—she still took the Finance portfolio from Moraraji Desai and refused any patch-up. She went on to support V.V. Giri who stood as an independent candidate instead of Sanjiva Reddy, the official Congress candidate, because he was the choice of the Syndicate. Her objective was to establish her independent authority within the Congress. Her camp urged the MPs and MLAs ‘to cast votes on the basis of inner conscience’ in the President’s election. Such proclamations led to a division in the Congress.

Mrs Gandhi was attempting to place herself in an independent position within the Congress using the institution of the President. She harped on the slogan of ‘Garibi Hatao’, disallowed Privy Purses to Princely rulers, nationalised banks on July 19, 1969 just to exhibit her socialistic credentials. Support to Giri was therefore a logical choice as he was a trade union leader and the former Union Labour Minister [1952-54], twice President of the All India Trade Union Congress, closely associated with the All India Railwaymen’s Federation. He thus fitted well in her socialistic mould.

This presidential election was a point of departure for the power and status of the Indian President. Now the President was supposed to be highly loyal to the Prime Minister as he was a personal choice of the Prime Minister. This became the main eligibility condition for many of the Congress Presidents in the years to come. It was now gradually getting established that the President should be the personal choice of the PM. The person selected as the President should be loyal to the PM and the party. This was an unhealthy development for this constitutional position.
Mrs Indira Gandhi had an authoritarian style of governance, her imposition of the Emergency was possible due to the influence she wielded on the post of the President. Dr Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, as the President [August 24, 1974 to February 11, 1977], had to sign the Emergency order. She succeeded in promoting the concept that the President was now a politically chosen individual with a hidden support for the ruling party. The discretion of the President and capacity to voice concern and opposition to the immoral acts of the PM and Council of Ministers began to erode. The imposition of the Emergency was such an act which was imposed by Mrs Gandhi to serve her political interests. Mrs Gandhi by now had also learnt well the dimensions of the President’s powers. She attempted to redefine the Constitution. As a consequence the 42nd constitutional amendment drastically curtailed the President’s powers with respect to the Council of Ministers.
Article 74 [1] was amended by the 42nd amendment and it now read that ‘’there shall be a Council of Ministers with the Prime Minister at the head to aid and advise the President who shall, in the exercise of his functions, act in accordance with such advice”.

This particular amendment in fact revised the whole constitutional structure due to its comprehensive nature but the most affected was the position of the President. Though a change in this particular article was made by the Janata Party Government but it was a sheer case of formality. The Janata Party Government by the 44th amendment added in Article 74 [1] “provided that the President may require the Council of Ministers to reconsider such advice, either generally or otherwise, and the President shall act in accordance with the advice tendered after such reconsideration”.

A great blow to the President’s powers came from these constitutional amendments. His discretionary powers were now quite limited although this was not always the case as we discovered in later years. Whenever any constitutional crisis arises the President may earn certain new discretionary powers.

This was also a time of great upheavals in Indian politics. This sudden death of President Ahmed brought B.D. Jatii, the Vice-President, to the helm of affairs. The Acting President, Jatti [February 11, 1977 to July 25, 1977], and Neelam Sanjiva Reddy later on devised new power zones to this post. Jatti’s efforts in this respect are noteworthy; being Vice-President and not a political choice but a circumstantial President, he demonstrated that the President is not without power; on occasions of necessity and whenever there is an opportunity the President can be highly decisive in matters pertaining to political decisions. He was a gentleman, being the Chief Minister of the Mysore State during 1958-62, had ground-level experience of the political dynamics. His independent political personality was manifest in several decisions. When the Janata Party Government led by Morarji Desai decided to dissolve nine State Assemblies, he did not accept the advice immediately. He took his own time, studied its constitutional aspects. The dissolution of the Assemblies was a political move by the Desai Government based on narrow partisan interest but the President demonstrated his independent existence. A new concept of independent President was born with this act; though Jatti finally signed the order, it became clear that even the Janata Party Government had attempted to use the President like Mrs Gandhi. This act was not in the great traditions of the pre-V.V. Giri phase where the office of the President was accepted as being sacrosanct. It also demonstrated that the President can play an active role even if the government is in full majority, a fact demonstrated by Giani Zail Singh later.

The election of Neelam Sanjiva Reddy was a historic event. Although PM Morarji Desai was keen on Rukmani Devi Arundale, but the turn of events brought the post to Reddy. The tenure of Sanjiva Reddy, the only President elected unopposed and former Speaker of the Lok Sabha, is remarkable for two reasons. First he took one controversial decision to invite Charan Singh after the split in the Janata Party; perhaps he had developed sour relations with Desai on the issue of dynastic politics when he spoke against those politicians whose offsprings were getting benefits: Kanti Desai, son of the PM, was thick in controversy at that time. Another issue between the President and PM’s relationship was related to Desai writing letters to Andhra Pradesh CMs J. Vengala Rao and M. Chenna Reddy on land ceiling. The President wished that this correspondence be made available to him and he did not like interaction of the PM on such controversial issues. These factors perhaps weighed in Reddy’s mind when the new PM was to be appointed by the President after the Janata Party split. However, President Reddy was accused as a presidential dictator by the supporters of Morarji Desai.

This suggests that the President possesses certain political powers which are solely discretionary in nature and emerge at moments of crisis. Where the Constitution is not sufficiently elaborated, the President can become more powerful.

The second feature emerged when President Reddy invented the concept of appointment of PM with conditions, which meant he allowed a party leader to be the PM, but in case there was skepticism on his power to enjoy majority in the Lower House then he was asked to prove his majority within a certain period of time [Charan Singh was administered oath of office on July 28, 1979, and had to prove his government’s majority by the third week of August. The President convened Parliament on August 20, but Charan Singh never faced Parliament for the majority test.] Such imposed conditions were a new development. Although such conditions could cause horse-trading, the President did show that he could invent certain rules. This invention was repeated by R. Venkataraman when he gave thirty days time to V.P. Singh to prove his majority in the Lower House.
President Reddy also succeeded in restraining the caretaker PM, Charan Singh, from announcing some pre-election beneficial measures to the backward community. The caretaker PM, after having known Reddy’s desire, did not go for such announcements. A weak PM always allows the President to become more powerful constitutionally.

In contrast, if the PM is powerful with sufficient party strength to elect the President, the selection of the President turns highly political and becomes a calculated move. Mrs Indira Gandhi selected Giani Zail Sigh for the post in 1982 when Sikh extremism was at its peak. Mrs Gandhi went for her choice ignoring the concept of consensus President since President Reddy and Vice-President M. Hidayatullah were elected unopposed in 1979. Giani Zail Singh, the then, Union Home Minister, was selected with this argument that his elevation would help in silencing the Sikh radicalism, though the logic behind his selection was in continuation of Mrs Gandhi’s political understanding that the President should be loyal to her. Her previous choices for the post were vivid examples of that idea; but in this case quality was sacrificed to loyalty. Zail Singh’s open statements about his election in which he bowed completely in front of Mrs Gandhi clearly suggested that his election was a purely political one, the result of loyalty to a leader.

The decline in the President’s selection was evident, though Giani Zail Singh in due course brought into focus two major elements of the President’s power. First was his constitutional support to Rajiv Gandhi in becoming the PM. After the death of Mrs Gandhi, the President was forced into the centre-stage. It was a rare instance as the PM died suddenly and power struggle within the party was likely to start and the possibility of the country coming under the grip of anarchy was quite strong.
On such occasions the whole country will look up to the President; the same was the case with Giani Zail Singh, and he in the process of displaying his loyalty to Mrs Gandhi obstructed the other elements in the Congress party to become the PM and control the political system. His political considerations helped Rajiv Gandhi to assume the post of the Prime Minister. It helped in resolving one of the major constitu-tional crises of post-independent India.

Another manifestation of the President’s power was also obtained during Giani Zail Singh’s tenure. Rajiv Gandhi as the PM started to disrespect Zail Singh’s office. He started ignoring the President persistently. He did not maintain the tradition of visiting the President regularly. He was not transparent on many issues including the Bofors issue to the President and allowed his Ministers like K.K. Tewary to insult the office of the President. Such improper actions on the part of the PM caused a sharp confrontation between the two constitutional bodies. The President scored the point by withholding the Indian Postal Bill in 1986; if passed, this Act would have given the government sweeping powers to intercept postal communication. This act of Zail Singh also highlighted the President’s pocket veto power, usually unused by Indian Presidents.

Another aspect of improper presidential activism was exhibited when Zail Singh started to get involved in threat politics. Due to persistent differences with the PM the President started to contemplate about Rajiv Gandhi’s dismissal. Though Rajiv Gandhi patched up with him, it did show that the President possessed many avenues of power and was capable of influencing the political dynamics.
If the President starts supporting a particular political course it is quite possible that defection, split in the ruling and Opposition parties and downfall of the government may start.

The President - PM confrontation during President Giani Zail Singh’s tenure brings into focus such dangers. The Constitution is silent on the limitations on the President’s activities in public affairs; if the President initiates a debate on any issue by using the media, passes statements or starts playing petty politics, then the political system is threatened with losing its organic existence. The President is therefore not a silent institution and his role stands beyond the constitutional provisions and established conventions. New norms and power zones can be devised by a shrewd President; although it will be a dangerous precedent, such a possibility always exists.

If the President is not the PM’s man and is an erudite scholar with a democratic mind, then this office may assume a new dimension. This has been proved by many instances. K.R. Narayanan discovered new principles of inviting the leader for the post of the Prime Minister. Narayanan believed that the claim of the leader of the largest party for forming the government is not always valid; instead the claim of that leader gets stronger for forming the government who carries support from the members of the coalition group. His invitation to Atal Behari Vajpayee to form the government testified to this.

His tenure also exposed the weakness of the PM and its relationship with the President. If the PM is weak as may happen during the coalition phase as obtains today or is weaker in political acumen and influence in the overall political matrix, in that case the President may play a more effective role. Narayanan did not accept the piece of advice of the PM, Indra Kumar Gujaral, on the issue relating to the Kalyan Singh Government in 1997, and when the matter of Mrs Rabri Devi’s government during the Vajpayee regime came up, his tough stand compelled the PM to beat a retreat as he did not have that much strength by which he could challenge the President’s capacity to decide. The President obstructed the vested political moves on both occasions and maintained the independence of the post through his sage advice.

When the PM is weak, the President automatically earns power which is constitutionally valid. During the time of Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, the government was under stress on the issue of the office of profit. His disagreement on the issue exhibited that the President, selected not on the basis of the loyalty concept, could place certain constitutional objections before the government. No government could ignore these objections. His return of the Office of Profit Bill for reconsideration to the Cabinet showed that the President was constitutionally a powerful institution, albeit much depended upon the prevailing political circumstances, strength of the party in power, influence of the personality of the PM and lastly the personality of the President himself.

The last element has emerged as the major factor in selecting the silent President as happened after Dr Kalam. It is true that the President of India is bound by the constitutional provisions but it does not mean he is restrained from public speaking, devising new norms for inviting a particular leader for the position of the PM, using the pocket veto or reaching to the people of India. If he speaks anything, it is certainly going to be headline in next day’s newspapers. This is his ultimate power. What he says will have a great bearing on the government; hence politics cannot be delinked from his post but in spite of many restrictions he will keep on enjoying great respect. The political nature of his position places the President as a pillar of strength, a great feature of Indian constitutionalism. History and politics of Indian Presidents therefore teach many lessons to new entrants to this esteemed position. The value of this post is based on dignity and order. Its violation will lead to democratic disaster, a danger which always lurks in the minds of the Indian people due to their increasing loss of faith in governance and in institutions like Parliament and the Council of Ministers. In such a crucial time the role of the President becomes more important and critical in preserving the faith and belief of the common man in the system.

Dr Vivek Kumar Srivastava is the Vice-Chairman, CSSP, Kanpur. He can be contacted at e-mail:

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