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
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.
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