STATE OF THE SYM­BOL

The of­fice of the Pres­i­dent has been de­val­ued over the years by gov­ern­ments that record of the out­go­ing oc­cu­pant of Rash­tra­p­ati Bha­van. It is time to re­store the stat placed po­lit­i­cal loy­alty above na­tional in­ter­est, cul­mi­nat­ing in the ig­no­ble ure and di

India Today - - COVER STORY - By M. J. Ak­bar

Two women al­most be­came pres­i­dent of In­dia, one in 1977 and the other in 1982. One will be fa­mil­iar only to ded­i­cated po­lit­i­cal pedants. The sec­ond re­mains a house­hold name, even 28 years af­ter her mar­tyr­dom. By 1982, Mrs Gandhi felt ex­hausted: The pun­ish­ing drama of power had been com­pounded by the de­spair of per­sonal tragedy. A “syn­di­cate” of party heavy­weights made her prime min­is­ter in 1966 af­ter Lal Ba­hadur Shas­tri’s sud­den death, on the as­sump­tion that she would be a pal­lia­tive for an in­creas­ingly dis­il­lu­sioned elec­torate and com­pli­ant to their com­mands. The steel that kept her nerve steady was vis­i­ble only in 1969, when Mrs Gandhi used an elec­tion for Pres­i­dent of In­dia to split the Congress and pro­pel her rebel, V. V. Giri, to Rash­tra­p­ati Bha­van. In 1971, she lifted her Congress to a magic pin­na­cle with a stun­ning vic­tory; four years later, she drove it into un­prece­dented depths by declar­ing an un­war­ranted Emer­gency. Congress was erased from the elec­toral map of north, west and east In­dia in 1977.

That turned out to be only the mid­dle of the story. She was back in of­fice in Jan­uary 1980. The eu­pho­ria of this po­lit­i­cal mir­a­cle van­ished when in 1980 her young heir San­jay Gandhi died in an air crash over Delhi. No bur­den is heav­ier for a mother than a son’s bier. It sapped her once in­domitable spirit to the point where she be­gan to con­sider a form of semi- re­tire­ment. In 1982, as an­other elec­tion for pres­i­dent neared, she turned to her young fi­nance min­is­ter and close con­fi­dant Pranab Mukher­jee with a strange thought.

She wanted to be­come pres­i­dent. Mukher­jee was stunned. Why would a woman with un­chal­lenged power seek the damp cer­e­monies of Rash­tra­p­ati Bha­van? Mukher­jee’s ge­nius, how­ever, lies not in ask­ing ques­tions, but in find­ing an­swers. As in­structed he checked with two se­niors, R. Venkatara­man and P. V. Narasimha Rao. They

IN­DIA’S LAST GOV­ER­NOR­GEN­ERAL C. RA­JAGOPALACHARI ( RIGHT) LOOKS ON AS CHIEF JUS­TICE M. H. KA­NIA ( LEFT) AD­MIN­IS­TERS THE OATH OF OF­FICE TO RA­JEN­DRA PRASAD AS THE FIRST PRES­I­DENT

squashed the sug­ges­tion. Their mo­tives were not to­tally al­tru­is­tic. They were ap­pre­hen­sive that Mrs Gandhi would nom­i­nate Mukher­jee as her re­place­ment. Mrs Gandhi stayed on. The multi- lin­gual in­tel­lec­tual Rao be­came fron­trun­ner, but Mrs Gandhi had other ideas. Much to the na­tion’s sur­prise, and the hor­ror of his peers, she made home min­is­ter Giani Zail Singh pres­i­dent.

In public per­cep­tion, Zail Singh’s prin­ci­pal claim to fame lay in his of­fer to sweep Mrs Gandhi’s room with a broom if asked. Since sub­servience is not the best ar­gu­ment for up­ward mo­bil­ity, a po­lit­i­cal cam­ou­flage was trot­ted out. “First” is al­ways a handy cat­e­gory. His nom­i­na­tion was ra­tio­nalised as a gesture to­wards Pun­jab, since Sikhs were al­ready in fer­ment. Zail Singh’s real USP was a prom­ise to be an obe­di­ent, trou­ble- free oc­cu­pant of the palace.

Loy­alty can be a frag­ile as­set. Zail Singh was pres­i­dent on the morn­ing Mrs Gandhi was as­sas­si­nated by her Sikh body­guards in 1984; by night­fall, Ra­jiv Gandhi had be­come prime min­is­ter. Be­fore dawn, Delhi, the cap­i­tal of ru­mour, was whis­per­ing that Zail Singh had been less than co­op­er­a­tive. In a more con­crete demon­stra­tion of sus­pi­cion, Ra­jiv Gandhi dropped his mother’s favourite min­is­ter, Pranab Mukher­jee, from his Cab­i­net af­ter the gen­eral elec­tions of De­cem­ber.

The con­flict be­tween Ra­jiv Gandhi and Zail Singh strained their re­la­tion­ship be­yond con­sti­tu­tional elas­tic­ity. Zail Singh was soon telling any­one who would lis­ten, and many who would not, that he had the le­gal au­thor­ity to dis­miss Ra­jiv Gandhi. He would take se­lected guests on a walk in the Mughal Gar­dens be­cause he was afraid his draw­ing room con­ver­sa­tions were be­ing taped by the In­tel­li­gence Bureau. Ra­jiv Gandhi’s aides re­sponded with threats of im­peach­ment. The rhetoric on both sides pos­si­bly ex­ceeded prac­ti­cal ca­pa­bil­ity, but the ten­sion was pal­pa­ble and dan­ger­ous. Zail Singh slid into the larger script of con­fronta­tion over pay- offs in the Bo­fors gun deal.

Mrs So­nia Gandhi, as wife of the young prime min­is­ter, took away a les­son from that sear­ing ex­pe­ri­ence which she has not for­got­ten: That trust is a scaleable com­mod­ity in pol­i­tics. In the­ory a pres­i­dent is above pol­i­tics; in prac­tice, he is what he chooses to be. There

shall be a Pres­i­dent of In­dia.” Seven sim­ple words de­fine the high­est of­fice in the Repub­lic of In­dia. Noth­ing more; the Con­sti­tu­tion is silent on the ex­ec­u­tive penumbra of the po­si­tion. The next Ar­ti­cle, 53, of the Con­sti­tu­tion, shifts to the ex­ec­u­tive power of the Union. As sym­bol of the state, the pres­i­dent is vested with supreme com­mand of the armed forces, but with the qual­i­fi­ca­tion that “the ex­er­cise thereof shall be reg­u­lated by law”. The em­i­nent con­sti­tu­tional ex­pert, Ram Jeth­malani, pins the anom­aly that

was re­dressed: “If the rel­e­vant Ar­ti­cle ( 53) did not have im­por­tant catch­words, the pres­i­dent of In­dia would have been more pow­er­ful than any hered­i­tary and ab­so­lute King. Both parts of the Ar­ti­cle how­ever em­ploy words which ren­der the vest­ing of these enor­mous pow­ers noth­ing more than for­mal and cer­e­mo­nial.” Ar­ti­cle 56( b) reaf­firms the supremacy of Par­lia­ment, as “the Pres­i­dent may, for vi­o­la­tion of the Con­sti­tu­tion, be re­moved from of­fice by im­peach­ment ( by Par­lia­ment) in the man­ner pro­vided in Ar­ti­cle 61”.

Jawa­har­lal Nehru held, in essence, that the pres­i­dent was akin to the Bri­tish monarch, whose lim­its were de­fined by con­ven­tion rather than statute. It was not merely a mat­ter of blindly im­i­tat­ing the Bri­tish tem­plate; the writ­ten clause, par­tic­u­larly in the grant of rights, can be more amenable to ex­ploita­tion than an un­writ­ten one. In­dia’s pres­i­dents, so far, have re­spected the di­vi­sion of re­spon­si­bil­ity; even Zail Singh did not dare go be­yond the pri­vate in­nu­endo. In any case, Ar­ti­cle 74 binds the pres­i­dent to act only on the ad­vice of the Coun­cil of Min­is­ters, the di­rectly elected heart of gov­ern­ment.

Con­flict arose even when In­dia was gov­erned by gi­ants nur­tured in the free­dom move­ment.

PIB/ PHOTO DI­VI­SION

RAGHU RAI/ www. in­di­a­to­day­im­ages. com

HT Photo

RA­JIV GANDHI ( RIGHT) WITH GYANI ZAIL SINGH IN NEWDELHI

( LEFT) PRES­I­DENT FAKHRUD­DIN ALI AHMED WITH PRIME MIN­IS­TER INDIRA GANDHI; PRIME MIN­IS­TER JAWA­HAR­LAL NEHRU WITH PRES­I­DENT RA­JEN­DRA PRASAD

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