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Mainstream, VOL L, No 34, August 11, 2012

Changing Roles of the Presidents of India

Friday 17 August 2012


The first President of India, Dr Rajendra Prasad, did not accept that the head of the Indian state is a mere ceremonial one. He not only opposed the enactment of the Hindu Code Bill but also demanded the examination of the powers of the President. It is pertinent to mention that despite having been elected to the office against the wishes of the then Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, Prasad acted as the constitutional head but not as a nominal head during his two terms.

His successor, Dr S. Radhakrishnan, a great scholar, however, asserted the authority of the President after India’s humiliating defeat in the war with China in 1962 and forced the Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, not only to drop the Defence Minister, Krishna Menon, but also to change the Chief of Army Staff, Thapar.
Zakir Hussain, who succeeded him, acted as a constitutional head but also maintained the dignity of his office during his short tenure of two years.

The fourth President, V.V. Giri, who owed his office to the support from the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, acted as the Prime Minister’s President. But even he expressed his public displeasure over her handling of the strike by the Railwaymen.
The successor of Giri, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, too owed his office to the Prime Minister. But he lowered the prestige of this august office by declaring Emergency in 1975 at the instance of Indira Gandhi even in the absence of a resolution of the Cabinet.

The next President of India, Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy, who had been elected unanimously and that too against the wishes of the then Prime Minister, Morarji Desai, had to play a proactive role after the fall of the Janata Government in 1979. He played a decisive role in the formation of the minority government headed by Charan Singh. Although his decision to accept the advice of a Prime Minister who could not even face the Lok Sabha for the dissolution of the Lok Sabha without giving the Janata Party leader, Babu Jagjivan Ram, a chance to prove his majority and form a government, was widely criticised, he refused to issue ordinances for the implementation of the Mandal Commission and for according the minority status on Aligarh Muslim University. After the return of Indira Gandhi to power in 1980, he, however, always accepted the advice of her government. The case of dismissal of the non-Congress governments in the States and removal of the Governors, Prabhu Dutt Patwari and Raghukul Tilak, may be cited by way of illustration.

Giani Zail Singh, who succeeded Reddy, functioned as the Prime Minister’s President during the tenure of Indira Gandhi but did not hesitate to act otherwise when Rajiv Gandhi was the Prime Minister. He not only did not give assent to the Postal Bill but is also alleged to have threatened to dismiss the Prime Minister. He reportedly made serious attempts to dislodge Rajiv Gandhi by encouraging dissident in the party.

His successor, R. Venkataraman, who was expected to have a legalistic role, had to play a crucial role during the phase of political instability accompanying the tenures of V.P. Singh and Chandra Shekhar. He even suggested the formation of a national government to avoid mid-term parliamentary elections.

S.D. Sharma, who became President after him, did not remain a silent spectator of the demolition of Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992 and criticised publicly the laxity on the part of the government headed by P.V. Narsihma Rao in preventing the mosque’s destruction.

His successor, K.R. Narayanan, acted as the constitutional head in an impartial manner during the tenures of H.D. Deve Gowda, Inder Kumar Gujral and Atal Behari Vajpayee. But this did not deter him from giving expression to his quest for inclusive governance by emphasising due share for the Dalits.

A.P.J. ABDUL KALAM, who succeeded him, was a non-political President. Although he worked as the constitutional head as per the spirit of the Constitution, he never signed on the dotted line during the terms of Atal Behari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh. His decision to visit to Gujarat after the massacre of the Muslims in 2002 was praiseworthy.

His successor, Pratibha Devi Singh Patil, too, despite the alleged involvement of some of the members of her family in a few controversies, had on the whole successfully played the role of a constitutional head. She, however, did not leave any imprint on account of the deficiencies in her credentials for holding this august office. Nevertheless, she conducted herself with sufficient dignity during the discharge of her duties. Besides, she could rightly claim the unique honour of becoming the first woman President of the country. She, in a manner of speaking, became a symbol of women’s empower-ment which continues to elude India despite the fact that the UPA chairperson, is a woman, Sonia Gandhi.

The present President, Pranab Mukherjee, is going to face the challenging task of being an effective and active friend, philosopher, and guide to the besieged Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, who is being pressured from above by the UPA chairperson, Sonia Gandhi, and her team of advisors, in the middle, by the overbearing colleagues in his Cabinet and the unreasonable allies in the UPA, and from below by the NDA. The negative stance of the Chief Ministers of the States having non-Congress governments, on the one hand, and the pressure of the corporate houses as well as the President of the USA for accerelating the pace of economic reforms, have also made things difficult for him. The role of the present President is going to become all the more difficult after the forthcoming parliamentary elections which are due in 2014 because no political party or an alliance is going to get a clear majority in these. But, fortunately, he also has the calibre, expertise, experience and tactfulness for dealing with tricky situations. He shall be generally guided by the precedents and conventions in the discharge of his duties. But he would not hesitate to deviate from those in the case of their insufficiency or unsuitability for safeguarding the spirit of the Constitution. In fact, he can be fully relied upon to successfully handle all sorts of unforeseen contingencies. As a matter of fact, the Indian polity badly needed a President like Pranab Mukherjee at a juncture when we are witnessing a sort of paralysis in the decision-making process at the top level on the one hand and the snowballing of the economic crises due to international recession and domestic slowdown on the other. The failure of monsoons has further compounded the problem.

Be that as it may, the role of the President has not been static. It has been evolving. Although the 42nd Amendment has made it obligatory for the President to accept the advice of the Council of Ministers, if it is sent once again to her/him after reconsideration, the President continues to have enormous powers. But his role depends, in addition to the constitutional provisions, on his personality as well as the political situation prevailing during his tenure.

Professor Ranbir Singh is a retired Professor of Political Science, Kurukshetra University, Kuruk-shetra, Haryana, and Dr Kushal Pal is an Associate Professor, Political Science, Dyal Singh College, Karnal, Haryana.

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