THE PEOPLE’S PRESID
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
SONIA GANDHI ( LEFT) WITH PRANAB MUKHERJEE ATTHE RELEASE OFTHE PARTYMANIFESTO AHEAD OFTHE 2009 GENERALELECTIONS