Elections of presidents in this country have often been as controversial, dramatic and unpredictable as the general elections to Parliament and state assembly polls. This is rather odd, because for long years, the Congress party was so dominant that whoever was its presidential candidate, was bound to sail through. It was trouble within the ruling party that became the malaise. Jawaharlal Nehru won the first three general elections hands down and almost single-handedly. But despite his best efforts, he failed to get his nominees — C. Rajagopalachari, better known as Rajaji or C.R., in 1950 and S. Radhakrishnan in 1957 — elected as heads of state. Rajendra Prasad, who had presided over the Constituent Assembly, was India’s president for 12 years until Radhakrishnan succeeded him in 1962.
In the 1967 general election, the first without Nehru but with his daughter Indira Gandhi as prime minister, the Congress tally in the Lok Sabha plummeted by as many as 82 seats. By the time it had reached a compromise under which Morarji Desai became deputy prime minister in Gandhi’s cabinet, Radhakrishnan’s tenure as president was coming to an end. Desai and some “party bosses” suggested that he should be given a second term. But the prime minister refused and asked them: “What answer would you give when people ask why Vice President Zakir Husain was bypassed?” The eminent educationist and former governor of Bihar won comfortably. But tragically, he died in May 1968, and all hell broke loose. K. Kamaraj and Desai, using their majority in the Congress Parliamentary Board, nominated N. Sanjiva Reddy as the party’s presidential candidate, despite the prime minister’s strong objection. She reacted like a wounded tigress, “relieving” Desai of his finance portfolio but asking him to stay on as deputy PM without portfolio. Declaring that he had been treated as a “chaprasi (peon)”, he resigned.
Meanwhile, Vice President V.V. Giri, angry because he was bypassed, resigned and announced that he would contest the presidential election as an independent candidate. Indira Gandhi and her followers decided to vote for him, which more or less ensured his victory.
Regrettably, neither before nor after has pre-poll canvassing been so sordid as in 1969, incidentally the Mahatma’s birth centenary year.
The party, indeed, split into two. In 1971, Indira Gandhi reached her finest hour first by winning the general election with a huge majority, and then by her more spectacular victory in the war for the liberation of Bangladesh. Giri retired as president in 1974 and in the presidential elections that followed, Indira Gandhi’s handpicked loyalist, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, was elected president. It was he who signed the proclamation of Emergency, a 19-month nightmare, at the midnight hour on June 25, 1975. Soon thereafter he died — the second president to do so in harness — and because of the Emergency, no election could be held. Vice President B.D. Jatti went on performing the president’s functions and duties.
After the empress was overthrown in 1977 and the Janata Party came to power amidst great goodwill, Sanjiva Reddy went through the first post-Emergency presidential poll like a hot knife through butter. His term ended in 1982. At that time, Indira Gandhi was back in power with a two-thirds majority in Parliament and many state assemblies, thanks to the Janata’s ignominious self-destruction. To most people’s surprise, she gifted the president’s post to Giani Zail Singh, a former chief minister of Punjab and later her home minister. He was followed by R. Venkataraman, Shankar Dayal Sharma and K.R. Narayanan, all belonging to the Congress. When Narayanan’s term ended in 2002, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance, headed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, was in power. The buzz in the capital was that P.C. Alexander, former principal secretary of Indira Gandhi during her second innings and then to her son and successor, Rajiv Gandhi, was going to be the next president. He was then governor of Maharashtra and on very good terms with the Shiv Sena and the BJP, which were then ruling the state. Indeed, the NDA made no bones about sponsoring him for the presidency. For his part, Alexander took the Congress’s support for granted because of his long and close association with the Gandhi family in the past. He was shaken, however, when he went to see the Congress president, Sonia Gandhi. For, she left him in no doubt that by her reckoning, he belonged to the “enemy camp”.
Meanwhile, consultations between Vajpayee and Sonia Gandhi, through the usual back channel, consisting of Brajesh Mishra, the prime minister’s principal secretary, and K. Natwar Singh, Sonia Gandhi’s confidant, continued. Alexander was not acceptable to the Congress.
The other side was opposed to a second term for Narayanan. But the prime minister showed willingness to bestow the honour to Vice President Krishan Kant. Indeed, both sides had even conveyed their congratulations to him. A clue to this development is given in former RAW chief A.S. Dulat’s new book. He says that Vajpayee was then thinking of offering the vice president’s job to Kashmir Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah — an idea that was dropped soon enough, which also explains why, at the last minute, the BJP withdrew its acceptance of Krishan Kant as president. The shock to him was so massive that, in the words of one of his best friends, he died of a broken heart, rather than of a heart attack he did suffer.
That was when the word spread that the best candidate for the presidency would be pre-eminent defence scientist A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. It seems that the idea first came from Mulayam Singh Yadav, the supreme leader of the Samajwadi Party, and spread like a forest fire. And what a fine idea it was. Kalam proved to be a highly popular president. In Natwar Singh’s words, “Kalam did not seek office; the office sought him.” There is more to be said about the procession of presidents. But having exhausted the available space, this will have to be done some other time.
The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator