THE PEO­PLE’S PRESID

India Today - - COVER STORY -

Dr Ra­jen­dra Prasad, Gand­hiji’s host at Patna en route to Cham­paran in 1916, be­came In­dia’s first pres­i­dent af­ter we shook off our Do­min­ion sta­tus and be­came a Repub­lic in 1950. Prasad was an en­thu­si­as­tic sup­porter of a con­tro­ver­sial public- pri­vate project to re­build the Som­nath tem­ple, fa­mously de­stroyed by Mah­mud of Ghazni in 1026 AD. Prime Min­is­ter Nehru took a clas­sic view of the sec­u­lar state, and wrote to chief min­is­ters on May 2, 1951: “Gov­ern­ment of In­dia as such has noth­ing to do with it. While it is easy to un­der­stand a cer­tain mea­sure of public sup­port to this ven­ture we have to re­mem­ber that we must not do any­thing which comes in the way of our State be­ing sec­u­lar. That is the ba­sis of our Con­sti­tu­tion...”

Prasad, and stal­warts like Sar­dar Val­lab­hb­hai Pa­tel, thought that the best way to lance emo­tive is­sues, resid­u­als of a complicated his­tory, was to ad­dress ma­jor­ity de­mands early, when re­ac­tions could be ei­ther ab­sorbed or brushed aside, or they would in­flate into huge communal crises later, as in­deed the dis­pute over Babri mosque did. Prasad presided over the open­ing cer­e­mony of Som­nath in 1951, and Nehru did noth­ing. The dif­fer­ence was not worth a con­fronta­tion.

Their sec­ond dis­pute arose over what Nehru de­scribed, in an in­ter­view to Taya Zinkin, cor­re­spon­dent of the Manch­ester Guardian in 1962, as the great­est achieve­ment of his life, the Hindu Code Bill, passed in 1956, which amended and cod­i­fied Hindu law to en­sure gen­der equal­ity. Polygamy, for in­stance, was per­mis­si­ble for Hin­dus till then. Prasad re­sisted re­form, but he

could do noth­ing against Nehru and the will of Par­lia­ment. But these were dif­fer­ences over par­al­lel vi­sions of In­dia, not petty and ac­ri­mo­nious tus­sles for con­trol.

Iron­i­cally, col­lu­sion be­tween prime min­is­ter and pres­i­dent can be as dan­ger­ous as con­flict. A pres­i­dent’s power lies in moral au­thor­ity, which de­mands the in­de­pen­dence of a judge and sagac­ity of a wide- awake na­tion­al­ist. He is guardian of the most pre­cious as­set in a democ­racy, the peo­ple’s rights, as in­scribed in the Con­sti­tu­tion. Any lapse is never for­given by the voter or by his­tory. A per­fectly de­cent pres­i­dent like Fakhrud­din Ali Ahmed ( Au­gust 1974 to Fe­bru­ary 1977), there­fore, is not re­mem­bered for ci­vil­ity, but for the crass sub­servience he dis­played when, in June 1975, he signed with­out ques­tion Mrs Gandhi’s au­thor­i­tar­ian procla­ma­tion that con­demned In­dia to 19 months of Emer­gency. The bril­liant satirist Abu Abra­ham, who had been nom­i­nated to the Ra­jya Sabha by Mrs Gandhi, stepped out of his grace- and- favour per­sona and drew a with­er­ing car­toon of the pres­i­dent sell­ing away the Con­sti­tu­tion from his bath­tub. This mem­ory is in­deli­ble in the na­tional con­scious­ness, and ex­plains the hos­tile re­ac­tion to the prospect of a dummy or a dwarf in Rash­tra­p­ati Bha­van. In­di­ans want a pres­i­dent, not a pup­pet.

There were two mod­els for pres­i­dent for the first 19 years, per­son­i­fied in Ra­jen­dra Prasad and Dr Sarvepalli Rad­hakr­ish­nan, who be­came pres­i­dent in 1960: States­man- politi­cian and public in­tel­lec­tual, with high tal­ent and in­tegrity in com­mon. The three names be­ing tossed about so far for this year’s polls meet such stan­dards: Pranab Mukher­jee is ad­mired across party lines, as was ev­i­dent in the cur­rent ses­sion of Par­lia­ment, and in the coun­try; Ab­dul Kalam and Hamid An­sari are widely re­spected in­tel­lec­tual- pro­fes­sion­als.

In 1969, a third op­tion en­tered the frame. Mrs Gandhi won a spec­tac­u­lar po­lit­i­cal vic­tory but by choos­ing Giri, she be­gan a process of depreciation that in­evitably led to de­val­u­a­tion.

When Giri de­parted in 1974 there was talk that he had taken the cur­tains along with him. The last five years have seen the sym­bol of state de­scend to a car­i­ca­ture. In 2007, Mrs So­nia Gandhi set aside Pranab Mukher­jee’s name and pushed Mrs Prat­i­bha Patil’s name through per­plexed al­lies and a help­less na­tion. Iron­i­cally, these five desul­tory years of Mrs Patil have sharp­ened the de­mand for a per­son of stature like Mukher­jee as the 13th pres­i­dent. Congress al­lies Sharad Pawar and M. Karunanidhi refuse to be hus­tled this time around; they are try­ing to pre- empt So­nia Gandhi’s in­di­vid­ual will through col­lec­tive ap­plause. They have voiced sup­port for Mukher­jee even be­fore Congress has. Their UPA col­league Ma­mata Ban­er­jee is more wary, but she can­not af­ford to vote against a fel­low Ben­gali. Mu­layam Singh Ya­dav is happy to go with the flow if the flow is in this di­rec­tion. Sen­ti­ment for Mukher­jee has spread to sec­tions of the BJP as well. Cu­ri­ously, the only per­son who could deny Mukher­jee what is widely ac­knowl­edged as his due is his own leader, Mrs So­nia Gandhi.

There is only one plau­si­ble rea­son for Mrs Gandhi’s hes­i­ta­tion. She can­not be cer­tain about what Mukher­jee will do dur­ing his ‘ over­lap’ mo­ment.

The first ‘ Over­lap Pres­i­dent’ would have been a well- re­garded Bharatanatyam dancer called Ruk­mini Devi. We shall never know what prompted the Janata Prime Min­is­ter Mo­rarji De­sai to float this 71- yearold’s name in 1977; he was not fa­mous for pa­tron­age of the arts. Per­haps he had some per­sonal peeve against Nee­lam San­jeeva Reddy, whose claim lay in the fact that Mrs Gandhi stopped him from be­com­ing pres­i­dent in 1969, set­ting off a chain of events that had come full cir­cle in less than a decade. De­sai was over­ruled; Reddy be­came pres­i­dent. But this cir­cle had an ex­tra twist. In 1980, Reddy had to swear in Mrs Gandhi as prime min­is­ter. He thus be­came an over­lap pres­i­dent, split­ting his term be­tween gov­ern­ments that were po­lit­i­cally hos--

tile to each other. The last over­lap pres­i­dent was Ab­dul Kalam. In 2004, Mrs So­nia Gandhi went to him to claim the prime min­is­ter­ship; there is con­tro­versy about what ex­actly tran­spired. A day later, So­nia Gandhi chose Dr Man­mo­han Singh. Ev­ery Congress MP lauded her for a unique sac­ri­fice, all speeches broad­cast to the na­tion by an oblig­ing Do­or­dar­shan.

“The Prime Min­is­ter shall be ap­pointed by the Pres­i­dent and the other min­is­ters shall be ap­pointed by the Pres­i­dent on the ad­vice of the Prime Min­is­ter.” Ar­ti­cle 75 leaves no room for con­fu­sion. The pres­i­dent is within his rights to name who he will as prime min­is­ter, for there is no Cab­i­net whose ad­vice he can seek. The prime min­is­ter must prove his ma­jor­ity in the Lok Sabha, but any­one can be­come prime min­is­ter for that pe­riod. In 1996, Congress lost the elec­tions but no one won them. Pres­i­dent Shankar Dayal Sharma set an ad­mirable prece­dent by call­ing upon the leader of the largest sin­gle party, BJP, to form a gov­ern­ment even though both he and the BJP knew that it would not win a vote in the House. Atal Bi­hari Va­j­payee be­came prime min­is­ter for 16 days. But a prece­dent is not a law. As the Lok Sabha gets in­creas­ingly frac­tured, the pres­i­dent’s lee­way ex­pands. The dan­gers are ob­vi­ous if nei­ther ma­jor party gets suf­fi­cient seats to com­mand the dom­i­nant cen­tre of an al­liance, and smaller par­ties feel free to of­fer sup­port in re­turn for po­lit­i­cal or fi­nan­cial re­wards. This has hap­pened of­ten enough at the state level.

The role of the pres­i­dent will be crit­i­cal af­ter the next gen­eral elec­tions. Rahul Gandhi’s fu­ture could de­pend on the decision the pres­i­dent will take. Mrs So­nia Gandhi is clearly hes­i­tant about both the pop­u­lar favourites, Kalam and Mukher­jee; she may even won­der whether Hamid An­sari would tweak the rules just a lit­tle at crunch time. There is there­fore much talk of a last- minute sur­prise can­di­date, who will prob­a­bly pop up in the last week of May, or even in June around the time of the no­ti­fi­ca­tion. Since “first” is a pre­ferred al­ibi, spec­u­la­tion is nar­row­ing to a tribal can­di­date, for three Mus­lims and a Dalit have al­ready lived in Rash­tra­p­ati Bha­van. Or the Congress might choose to trip Mukher­jee by opt­ing for any­one else around whom a con­sen­sus can be cre­ated.

There is a dif­fer­ence though: Mrs So­nia Gandhi was in com­mand in 2007. This year, the al­lies needed to en­sure vic­tory have stopped be­ing stenog­ra­phers in the ser­vice of a po­lit­i­cally weak­ened Congress. They are not ready for dic­ta­tion.

To bid for the fu­ture, you must first in­sure the present. At the mo­ment of writ­ing the in­sur­ance pol­icy is in the name of Pranab Mukher­jee.

OUT­GO­ING PRESIDENTAPJ ABDULKALAM ( RIGHT) GREETS SO­NIA GANDHI DUR­ING AFOR­MAL RE­CEP­TION AT RASH­TRA­P­ATI BHA­VAN

AP Photo

SO­NIA GANDHI ( LEFT) WITH PRANAB MUKHER­JEE ATTHE RE­LEASE OFTHE PARTYMANIFESTO AHEAD OFTHE 2009 GENERALELECTIONS

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