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A suitable president

By choosing pliant heads of state,Congress has diminished the office

Written by Niraja Gopal Jayal |
May 9, 2012 3:36:22 am

By choosing pliant heads of state,Congress has diminished the office

In the history of the Indian republic,all but two presidents have been elected on the Congress party’s watch: N. Sanjiva Reddy,the first president to be called upon to exercise presidential discretion in forming governments and dissolving Parliament,and A.P.J. Abdul Kalam,arguably our most popular and least assertive president. For the rest,it is the Congress that has played the leading role in selecting the occupant of Rashtrapati Bhavan.

On one largely forgotten occasion,the roles were actually reversed as President S. Radhakrishnan worked quietly behind the scenes to ensure that Indira Gandhi became prime minister,over the rival claims of Gulzarilal Nanda,Morarji Desai and Y.B. Chavan. It is another matter that relations between them later soured,and she worked assiduously to ensure that he did not get a second term,sponsoring the candidature of Zakir Husain instead.

The dramatic 1969 split in the Congress occurred over the nomination of a president to succeed Husain who had died in harness. The victory of V.V. Giri,the independent candidate Indira Gandhi chose to support over the official nominee of the Congress,led to her expulsion from the party. Giri’s success,along with her stunning victory in the Lok Sabha election of 1971,contributed immensely to the consolidation of her power.

Two sets of considerations seem to operate when choosing a presidential candidate,and they suggest competing,even slightly contradictory,tendencies. First,there is the assumption that the presidency is a largely ceremonial office,a sinecure for senior politicians who are either to be rewarded with a nice retirement home or,if inconvenient,kicked upstairs. It also provides an opportunity for minority tokenism,and the two are sometimes happily combined.

On other occasions,minority tokenism may converge with immediate political interests,as in the case of Zail Singh’s election,which was calculated to assuage Sikh sentiment at a time when Punjab was on the boil,and simultaneously ensure an entirely biddable president.

The second,somewhat contrary,assumption is that the president is potentially powerful and may exercise an independent role in the case of a hung parliament. This is,therefore,an office whose incumbent must be reliable. Since at least 1967,the first time Congress faced a reduced majority in Parliament and lost elections in many states,the choice of the president has been influenced by a worry about the role of presidential discretion in government formation.

While Sanjiva Reddy was the first president to exercise such judgment in 1977,this role has obviously been accentuated since 1989,with three presidents — R. Venkataraman,Shankar Dayal Sharma and K.R. Narayanan — having faced Lok Sabhas without clear or stable majorities. The inauguration of the era of coalition governments has made the choice of a politically dependable president ever more compelling. Pratibha Patil’s election was a good example of such an assurance of reliability combined with gender tokenism.

It is a measure of the cynicism that informs our public life that we have come to assume that pliability is the central criterion in the choice of a president. Over time,however,the choosing of biddable presidents by the Congress has served to diminish the office itself. Apart from the exercise of presidential powers in the case of a hung parliament,there are at least four other areas where this is evident.

First,the question of presidential discretion goes beyond his or her role in government formation. Three months into his presidency,Rajendra Prasad — who famously clashed with Jawaharlal Nehru on several issues,including the Hindu Code Bill — wrote a note asking whether the Constitution envisaged situations in which the president may be called upon to act independently of ministers,and what powers the president had with respect to appointments and the deployment of the armed forces.

Indira Gandhi had,through the 42nd Amendment,sought to curb presidential discretion,but Desai’s 44th Amendment countered it,making it possible for the president to exercise some discretion and return bills for reconsideration. In today’s context,Zail Singh’s returning of the Postal Bill,authorising the government to intercept mail seems quaint,but at the time it appeared as a significant exercise of this presidential power. K.R. Narayanan used his presidential discretion to give speeches that were not submitted to the (NDA) government and were even impliedly critical of it.

Secondly,the Congress’s use of presidential powers to apply Article 356 to declare the President’s rule in the states has historically been a potent instrument in the hands of the Union government to unseat antagonistic state governments. Thanks to the strengthening of Indian federalism and the Bommai judgment,this has happily become virtually extinct. Fortunately,Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed’s shameful cravenness in signing the ordinance imposing the national emergency in 1975 is not something that is likely to be repeated either.

Less happily obsolete,thirdly,is the Westminster convention of weekly briefings of the president by the prime minister. Nehru was punctilious in following this tradition,even when his relationship with Rajendra Prasad was at its nadir. Apparently,Indira Gandhi did likewise,though Operation Bluestar was not discussed with Zail Singh. Today,we know next to nothing about when and how often the prime minister briefs the president. Certainly,such visits are publicised only to give rise to wild speculation.

Finally,there is the all-important role of the president as the supreme commander of the armed forces. President Patil’s silence through the recent controversy around the army chief stands in sharp contrast to President Radhakrishnan’s insistence,against Nehru’s wishes,on the sacking of defence minister V.K. Krishna Menon at the time of the China war. In the most recent episode of civil-military tension,President Patil chose not to give her government sage counsel,speaking only when the crisis had blown over and then rather feebly.

Providentially for the Congress,its most assertive and combative president,Rajendra Prasad,held office at a time when the hegemony of the party was unchallenged. Since then,notwithstanding its diminished fortunes,the Congress has,through a combination of political astuteness and pure luck,generally managed to ensure the installation of A Suitable President.

The writer is chairperson,Centre for the Study of Law and Governance,JNU,Delhi,

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