President of India speaking!
By TIOL Edit Team
''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 woman president who can talk to the dead? 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. It is our good fortune that we had some great men in the RashtrapatiBhavan but we should also realise that as politics gets degenerated and Prime Ministers not enjoying the kind of luxurious majority that a Jawaharlal Nehru did, the quality of the people residing in RashtrapatiBhavan will also come down. This degeneration started nearly 30 years ago.
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 2.05.1952. 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 with an equally eminent scholar Dr. Radha Krishnan as his Vice President. 48 years ago Dr. Rajendra Prasad had won as the student secretary of the Presidency College, Calcutta with a huge majority of over a thousand votes to seven. 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. When he demitted office in 1952, he requested the Government to release a car for his personal use without charging excise duty. The Finance Ministry refused. When he died in 1963, India's first President left a bank balance of Rs. 1432/-.
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. ZakirHussain as the first Muslim President of India. This was the first really contested election for the President. Chief Justice KokaSubbarao resigned from the Supreme Court and contested against Dr. ZakirHussain. With the combined opposition supporting Subbarao, he polled 3.63 lakhs votes compared to ZakirHussain's 4.71 Lakhs. Dr. ZakirHussain took charge as President of India on 13.5.1967. Like his predecessor ZakirHussain was a vice Chancellor before reaching the RashtrapatiBhavan. ZakirHussain unfortunately could not complete his tenure and became the first President to die in office in May, 1969.
ZakirHussain's death brought in a political upheaval in the country. V.V. Giri, the Vice President took over as the acting President on 3.05.1969. The great battle for India's Presidentship, 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 discreetly 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 24.8.1969. Giri brought with him rich legislative and political experience. He had joined the Dublin University for higher education but returned with deep impressions on the Irish Trade Union movement and founded the All India Railway Men's Federation way back in 1923. 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 nose dive. 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 like PranabMukherjee. Out of the blue, Indira Gandhi picked up Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed an aristocratic lawyer turned Minister in her cabin. And Mr. Ahmed comfortably sailed through the elections against the communist candidate TrideepChowdary. Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed was sworn in as President on 24.8.1974. His claim to fame before becoming President was that he was kept out of the Islamic summit at Rabat in 1969 on the objection of President Yahya Khan of Pakistan. 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 bath tub 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 11.2.1977. 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. When the Janata Government wanted to dismiss all the congress Chief Ministers of North India Jetty was not game. Then Morarji Desai threatened to resign and go to the people again and Jetty had to oblige.
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. Like PrathibhaPatil now, Morarji Desai discovered Rukmini Devi Arundale, the Chennai dancer for the post of President. But Arundale chose not to dance in the RashtrapatiBhavan 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 had Zail Singh. Zail Singh, a gyani in the scriptures, was generally taken to be highly modest. Justice HR Khanna the eminent jurist was the candidate against Singh. Singh won with a huge margin and was installed on 25.7.1982. During the pre-election period, Singh was the butt of ridicule and jokes far more than what we see in the current election. He started his Presidential career with the observation that if Indiraji wanted, he would happily pick up the broom and sweep the floor.
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. 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 Mr 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 25.7.1987. 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 GG. 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. He threatened that he would not vacate RashtrapatiBhavan, because he did not like the house allotted to him.
In 1997, there was hardly any dispute and KR 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 TN Seshan pitching in. Seshan got 50,631 votes compared to Narayanan's 9,56,290. Narayanan took over on 25.7.1997. Though Seshan charged that Narayanan became President only because he was a dalit, Naryanan proved to be a working President. He insisted on the Prime Minister to prove his majority on the floor of the House. He returned the advice of the Cabinet to dismiss the Rabri Devi and Kalyan Singh governments.
In 2002, Naryanan like Kalam was willing to run for a second term if he was the unanimous choice. BJP first proposed him but later propped up PC Alexander, whose choice was not acceptable. It was kingmaker Chandra Babu Naidu who clinched the issue in favour of APJ Abdul Kalam. Even he was not the unanimous choice. The Left put up LaxmiShegal. President Kalam took over on 25.7.2002 and went on to become the most popular President of India.
That brings us to 2007 and we are left with a lady who gets calls from the other worlds and an 84 year old vice president wanting to become President knowing fully well that the numbers are not on his side.
Whatever happens, we need not be unduly worried. No ruling party would like to have an independent President. But we should be happy that unlike countries like England where they have no choice of the King, we canelect our President!
Once Lord Macay, who as Lord Chancellor presided over the proceedings of the House of Lords, was in Delhi and called on Justice Hidayatullah. In the course of exchange of pleasantries, Justice Hidayatullahsaid: "Lord Macay, we too have a House akin to the House of Lords (reference to the RajyaSabha) but in our case, our stupidity is not hereditary. (The reference was to hereditary Lords in the House of Lords).