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What can a President do? He can, inter alia, launch GST

JULY 27, 2022

By Vijay Kumar

LAUNCHING the GST on the night of 30th June 2017, President Pranab Mukherjee prophetically said,

GST is a disruptive change. When a change of this magnitude is undertaken, however positive it may be, there are bound to be some teething troubles and difficulties in the initial stages. We will have to solve these with understanding and speed to ensure that it does not impact the growth momentum of the economy. The success of such major changes always depends on their effective implementation. In the months to come, based on the experience of actual implementation, the GST Council and the central and state governments should continuously review the design and make improvements .

The Government is supposed to advise the President - not vice-versa. Anyway, this week's column is about Presidents, not GST.

There shall be a council of ministers with the Prime Minister at the head to aid and advice the president who shall, in the exercise of his functions, act in accordance with such advice.

Article 74 of the Constitution stipulates this role for the President of India. Why then all this cacophony about a new president? Though lofty ideals about the great role of the President and the great men who should adorn this high office are preached, the fact remains that the President is chosen by the Prime Minister of the day. And the first time they tried to foist a President on the Prime Minister, the ruling party split vertically.

As the President of the constituent assembly and as a universally acclaimed good man, Dr. Rajendra Prasad was the natural choice to be the first President of India. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. As India became a republic, the temperamentally meek Dr. Rajendra Prasad stepped into the highest seat of "no power". The first election for the office of the President was held on 02.05.1952. Dr. Rajendra Prasad received over 5 lakhs votes while his nearest rival K.T. Shah polled 92,000 votes. Dr. Rajendra Prasad was sworn in on 13.5.1952. The first President was a brilliant student with a first in M.A. and first in Master of Laws. In spite of all his eminence, Prime Minister Nehru did not treat the President with all the respect that he deserved. Both Nehru and Vice President Radha Krishnan were not very happy when Dr. Rajendra Prasad decided to run for a second term. But such was the eminence of the first President that not even the Prime Minister could stop him from becoming the President a second time and Rajendra Prasad assumed office on 13.05.1957 for his second tenure. There were suggestions that Rajendra Prasad should run for a third term but with shattered health he could not.

Dr. Radha Krishnan took over as the second President on 13.5.1962. The second President was second to none and was made of the Calibre of ruffling Stalin's hair. Though Nehru liked Radha Krishnan for his intellectual greatness,the two really did not hit it off. By the time Radha Krishnan's tenure was coming to an end, Mrs. Indira Gandhi was strongly in power and she was in no mood to give a second term to the towering intellectual. But it should be said to her credit that she brought in another intellectually towering academician, Dr. Zakir Hussain as the first Muslim President of India. This was the first really contested election for the President. Chief Justice Koka Subbarao resigned from the Supreme Court and contested against Dr. Zakir Hussain. With the combined opposition supporting Subbarao, he polled 3.63 lakhs votes compared to Zakir Hussain's 4.71 Lakhs. Dr. Zakir Hussain took charge as President of India on 13.5.1967. Like his predecessor Zakir Hussain was a vice Chancellor before reaching the Rashtrapati Bhavan. Zakir Hussain unfortunately could not complete his tenure and became the first President to die in office in May 1969.

Zakir Hussain's death brought in a political upheaval in the country. V.V. Giri, the Vice President took over as the Acting President on 03.05.1969. The great battle for India's President ship, of course within the ruling party started. Overruling the Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, the Congress high command nominated Sanjeeva Reddy for the post of President. V.V. Giri, the Vice President acting as President also decided to contest. And he resigned from his post of Vice President and Acting President. With the result the nation was stuck with no President and no Vice President. So, Justice M. Hidayatulla, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court was sworn in as the Acting President. Justice Hidayatulla's brief tenure as President saw the visit of US President Richard Nixon. Nixon was the second US President to visit India.

Now the 1969 elections for the President saw high drama with Mrs. Gandhi discretely opposing her party's candidate and propounding the theory of conscience vote. Apart from V.V. Giri and Sanjeeva Reddy there was the opposition sponsored candidate, Dr. C.D. Deshmukh. For the first time in the history of elections for the President of India, no candidate got the required number of votes in the first round. Finally V.V. Giri won with a slender margin of less than 15,000 votes out of the over 8 Lakhs votes. V.V. Giri was sworn in as President on 24.08.1969. Giri brought with him rich legislative and political experience.

Though Giri was willing to run for a second term, there were not many takers for his cause. After Giri, the stature of President took a nosedive. Now loyalty to the ruling family became the most essential qualification. Stature, intellect etc., became impediments. Mrs. Gandhi was firmly in control, and she certainly did not want a nosy President. Jagjivan Ram was considered but he declined to retire from active politics. Out of the blue, Indira Gandhi picked up Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed an aristocratic lawyer turned Minister in her cabin. Mr. Ahmed comfortably sailed through the elections against the communist candidate Trideep Chowdary. Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed was sworn in as President on 24.08.1974. President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed will go down in history as the President who proclaimed internal emergency on June 26, 1975. He willingly signed any paper that Madam Prime Minister wanted him to. Cartoonist Abu had shown him signing ordinances from a bathtub with the caption "If they need any more signatures, ask them to wait till I finish my bath". A couple of months before Indira Gandhi was to lose her elections, President Ahmed died in office on 11.02.1977. And B.D. Jetty, the Vice President took over as the acting President. Jetty had the distinction of installing the first non-congress Prime Minister of India.

The year 1977 saw tremendous changes in the Indian polity with Indira Gandhi losing the elections and Janata Party coming to power. The new rulers were on a crusade of undoing all the evils of the Ind-era, which included compensating Sanjeeva Reddy for his loss in 1969. Sanjeeva Reddy was unanimously elected as the President of India. Of course, Prime Minister Morarji Desai was not exactly a keen supporter of Reddy. Morarji Desai discovered Rukmini Devi Arundale, the Chennai dancer for the post of President. But Arundale chose not to dance in the Rashtrapati Bhavan and Morarji Desai had to budge.

By the time Sanjeeva Reddy's tenure ended in 1982, Indira Gandhi was back in power and there was no question of even remotely considering Reddy for a second term. True to her style, she wanted a loyal president and she planted Zail Singh. He started his Presidential career with the observation that if Indiraji wanted, he would happily pick up the broom and sweep the floor. Justice HR Khanna, the eminent jurist was the candidate against Singh. Singh won with a huge margin and was installed on 25.7.1982.

Zail Singh quickly sworn in Rajiv Gandhi as Prime Minister after Mrs Gandhi's death, but Rajiv Gandhi did not respect him much and virtually ignored him. The Sardar's broom stick became a weapon, and he threatened the young Prime Minister badly. There was a strong rumour that the Giani was planning to dismiss Rajiv Gandhi and everyone heaved a sigh of relief when the Giani completed his tenure without creating any constitutional crises.

Arun Shourie describes the incident in his recent book, "The Commissioner For Lost Causes"

We sat down at a sort of dining table. He held my hand. He said that he had decided to dismiss Rajiv Gandhi.

Shourie said that that no one, certainly not the Express, could support a move to dismiss the Prime Minister. 'And no one will agree to become PM.'

Then Gyani said, "Shukla is ready. Arun Nehru is ready. Your friend Venkataraman is ready. There is no shortage of aspirants. Yes. I have talked to Vasantdada [Patil]. He is a seasoned man. I have made arrangements of TV, etc."

Arun Shourie said, "Sir, this will be a coup. It will never work. What if he brings five lakh people and surrounds Rashtrapati Bhavan? What will you do? Everyone will be thrashed with chappals . . ."

Shourie was later told, 'You haven't understood Gianiji's policy. His policy is, "Don't hit, frighten. Don't kill a man. Push him, shred his clothes, having thrown him to the ground, having frightened him, let him go."

The 'policy' had worked to the dot. Rajiv heard about what had 'almost happened'. He got really rattled—exactly as Gianiji had planned. He realized that the President was prepared to go to any length, that there was no option but to make up with him. All talk of impeaching the President stopped. Ministers and officials who had been staying away, even when the President asked them to come for discussions, suddenly started trooping to the Rashtrapati Bhavan.

President is not a rubber stamp after all - more reason for the ruling party to have a choice President!

Vice President Vekataraman was the obvious choice to succeed Singh. This time another great jurist, Justice Krishna Iyer contested against the Ruling party's candidate and predictably lost with a huge margin. Venkataraman took over on 25.07.1987. Loyalty was, of course, the deciding factor. Which Prime Minister can be comfortable with an eminent judge like Krishna Iyer?

Come 1992 and Prime Minister Narasimha Rao did not have much of a choice in nominating the Vice President Shankar Dayal Sharma, who easily won against G.G. Swell. Lawyer Ram Jethmalani was also a candidate and he polled 2704 votes against Sharma's 675864. President Sharma spent most of his time visiting Tirupati temple. During his last year in office, he installed three Prime Ministers.

In 1997, there was hardly any dispute and K.R. Narayanan, the former career diplomat and vice president was the obvious choice. This time, Prime Minister Gujral had absolutely no choice. Narayanan would have been elected unanimously, but for T.N. Seshan pitching in. Seshan got 50,631 votes compared to Narayanan's 9,56,290. Narayanan took over on 25.7.1997. Narayanan proved to be a working President. He insisted on the Prime Minister to prove his majority on the floor of the House.

In 2002, Narayanan was willing to run for a second term if he was the unanimous choice. BJP first proposed him but later propped up P.C. Alexander, whose choice was not acceptable. It was kingmaker Chandra Babu Naidu who clinched the issue in favour of A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. Even he was not the unanimous choice. The Left put up Laxmi Sehgal. President Kalam took over on 25.7.2002 and went on to become the most popular President of India.

In 2007, Sonia Gandhi emulated her mother-in-law and brought in a virtually unknown Pratibha Patil. Contesting against her was the 84 year old Vice President, Shekhawat wanting to become President knowing fully well that the numbers were not on his side. Pratibha Patil won with a majority of over three lakh votes. Her Presidency will perhaps go down in history as the most forgettable and uneventful one.

That brings us to 2012, when the ruling party in a most surprising move announced the candidature of its most active minister and the only trouble-shooter for the party. How could they do without Pranab Babu in the party and Government? Pranab Mukherjee as President was a forgone conclusion even though his opponent, Sangma had hoped for a miracle. The miracle did not happen and the most experienced politician Pranab Da took over as President of India. With his experience, he found working with Manmohan Singh as comfortable as it was with Narendra Modi. Immediately after his retirement, he joined the club of Presidents with a Bharat Ratna.

By 2017, when the new President had to be elected, BJP was in full control and had no difficulty in getting Ram Nath Kovind elected against Meira Kumar of the Congress Party. His Presidency passed off peacefully. He had the same Prime Minister for all the five years. Covid was the major event during Kovind's tenure. With him joining Pratibha Patil, we now have two living former Presidents.

And now we have Madam Murmu, the second lady President. Let us wish her well.

Lady Rashtrapati?

Once I asked a former Governor "But what would you call a Lady Rashtrapati?". She told me, "Madam President is okay - maybe we should change the designation, at least in Hindi".

Until Next week