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It is instructive to recall how past presidents have interpreted and exercised their power

It is instructive to recall how past presidents have interpreted and exercised their power

With the election of the next occupant of Rashtrapati Bhavan hardly two months away,the office of the president is in the news. It would be instructive to recall how presidents have interpreted and exercised their power during the last six decades and more. The president has some crucial powers and constitutional responsibilities that he has to exercise on his own. In case no party or coalition commands a clear majority support in the House,the president has to use his judgement to decide whom to call to form the government. This happened,for instance,when Charan Singh,Rajiv Gandhi,Chandra Shekhar,Deve Gowda,I.K. Gujral and Atal Bihari Vajpayee became prime minister.

However,there has been a sustained and systematic effort to underrate,undermine and even denigrate the presidency. While revisiting our polity at work over the last 60 years,we should restore a more balanced perspective on the role of our presidents in preserving,protecting and defending the Constitution.

The first president,Rajendra Prasad,asserted his will against PM Jawaharlal Nehru on the issue of the Hindu Code Bill. Later,he sought the opinion of the attorney general,M.C. Setalvad,in the matter of the constitutional position of the president. In October 1950,Setalvad opined that the president had the right to dismiss the ministry and dissolve Parliament. But Setalvad later revised his opinion,and in his September 1951 note to Nehru,he said that the powers of the president can be exercised by him only with the aid and advice of his ministers,and he could dismiss a minister but not a council of ministers enjoying the confidence of the House. During his second term in office,Prasad revived the controversy regarding the president’s powers by referring to the contents of Articles 74 and 75 of the Constitution and raising questions. Despite these differences,Nehru and Prasad understood each other. Both were prepared to yield,compromise and cooperate. It was not a question of their personal prestige being at stake; through those conflicts,the nature of our polity was being determined.

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S. Radhakrishnan was clearly Nehru’s choice. However,he did not hesitate to criticise the government’s policies. He held the government responsible for rising prices and asked for immediate action on corruption charges. Before his election as president,V.V. Giri had said that India needed an “independent and strong president who could see things straight and do justice well without fear or favour”. He had added that if elected,he would not be a sleeping partner or a rubber stamp. When PM Indira Gandhi advised the dissolution of Lok Sabha and fresh general elections,the president was reported to have asked her if the council of ministers had discussed the matter. When the dissolution did come,the gazette notification said that it was being done “on the advice of (the) council of ministers” and “after careful consideration”. It was a clear assertion of the president’s powers.

President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmad is often criticised for having accepted Indira Gandhi’s advice to declare internal emergency even without requiring that the council of ministers should have first considered the matter. When Indira Gandhi fell to assassins’ bullets,the point established with the appointment of Rajiv Gandhi was that the president had the unfettered right to appoint in his best discretion anyone subject to the later acceptance of the appointee by the Lok Sabha.

History was created when President Zail Singh did not give his assent to the postal bill and it did not become law despite its passage by both Houses. Serious differences were reported to have erupted between Zail Singh and Rajiv Gandhi during 1986-87. Matters were reported to have become so bitter that Zail Singh was said to be toying with the idea of dismissing the Rajiv Gandhi government. In that context,the 1987 presidential election assumed special significance. It was believed at the highest levels that something sinister was planned through the third candidate to have the election countermanded,so that Zail Singh could dismiss the Rajiv Gandhi ministry. No wonder,massive efforts were made to have the nomination of the third candidate rejected,whatever the cost.

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In the face of a hung House,the role of President R. Venkataraman was delicate and difficult. It was clearly a case where the president had to use his judgement and discretion. The president appointed V.P. Singh and asked him to prove his majority in the Lok Sabha. Later,V.P. Singh lost decisively on the floor of the House and it was possible to instal an alternative government headed by Chandra Shekhar with Congress support. Following his resignation in March 1991,it was thought that in case Lok Sabha failed to pass a vote on account and the appropriation bill,the president could do so by an ordinance under Article 123 of the Constitution. However,the president,whose legislative powers were only co-extensive with those of Parliament,could not pass the appropriations by an ordinance without grants having been voted upon. Venkataraman decided that the House could be dissolved only after passing a vote on account. On the last day of the 9th Lok Sabha,both Houses passed another bill within minutes,to which the president did not accord his assent and the bill never became law.

President Shankar Dayal Sharma once remarked that he was only a “gobar ganesh”. The remark was laughed away but in private conversation he bemoaned that some secretary brought him papers to sign,often without any time to read what they contained. When the 11th general election to the Lok Sabha did not return a clear verdict,Sharma decided that the only point to be considered was who had the best mandate. He appointed the leader of the single-largest party and pre-poll alliance,Atal Bihari Vajpayee,as the PM. President K.R. Narayanan is remembered for his strong stand in twice returning proposals for promulgation of President’s Rule in UP and Bihar under Article 356.

In a departure from tradition and precedents,it wasn’t the leader of the largest alliance and single-largest party,the Congress,but her nominee Manmohan Singh who was called upon by President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam to form the government. The issue that generated controversy was the effort at retrospectively,from 1959,legalising the illegality of members to hold offices of profit under the government by including a large number of such offices in the list of offices not constituting disqualification for membership. The bill passed by the two Houses was returned by the president with a message for reconsideration in May 2006. The president,however,gave his assent when the bill was passed again and presented to him.

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When we look back at the 62 years of the presidency,one message that emerges is that at least one office in the land deserves to be kept above partisan politics. The first citizen of the country should be selected from among the best — having a vision and commanding the widest possible respect for impeccable eminence,integrity,rectitude and total commitment to the nation.

The writer is a former secretary-general of the Lok Sabha

First published on: 07-05-2012 at 02:05:49 am
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