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Saturday, January 23, 2010

History of Presidents and Precedents

The President is anything but a rubber stamp. Through their actions, many of them have defined and expanded the role of the office. Subhash C Kashyap, former secretary general, Lok Sabha, who has known all Indian Presidents, walks down memory lane. During the Republics 60 years, we have had 12 elected Presidents apart from some officiating arrangements. They have all been distinguished First Citizens . Comparisons will be odious. However, as we go down memory lane, some highlights strike as worthy of recapitulation.

Indias first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, it is believed, preferred C Rajagopalachari as the first President while Sardar Patel and others in the Congress supported Dr Rajendra Prasad. Nehru wrote to Prasad advising him not to contest election for President and let Rajagopalachari occupy the position. He also wrote to Patel asking him not to support Prasad. There was no response from either. Rajagopal -achari had to stand out. Once a decision was taken at the party level, Nehru supported Prasad, the Congress candidate.

Nehru and Prasad had an uneasy relationship (see Page 3). As President, Prasad often acted as a reality check on Nehrus policies . When Nehru wanted to introduce the Hindu Code Bill, President Prasad wrote to him that a Bill, which sought to affect the life and culture of the people should not be brought before the provisional Parliament and Nehru should wait till after the first general election. The Bill was, however, brought before the provisional Parliament twice fiercely opposed both times. Nehru finally accepted the Presidents advice and did not proceed with the Bill. As his term neared its end, Prasad expressed his desire to continue for a second term. Nehru wanted Dr S Radhakrishnan, the Vice President, to be elevated to the position . But as the equation in the party and in Parliament became clear, Nehru did not go beyond expressing his quiet preference. To assuage Radhakrishnans feelings, Nehru made a significant gesture at the cost of his own position. He ordered a change in the warrant of precedence, putting the Vice-President as No. 2, next to the President and making the PM the No. 3 in the Republics pecking order.

To pre-empt the possibility of Prasad getting a third term, Nehru brought a private members constitution amendment Bill in Rajya Sabha on August 18, 1961, seeking to restrict Presidents tenure to maximum two terms. Prasad got the message and didnt seek another term. Dr Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan was elected Indias second President. In Radhakrishnan, Nehru saw a philosopher statesman. The two met often and there was as much philosophy discussed as were matters political and of state. However, to believe some versions, the honeymoon didnt last long. Radhakrishnan did not hesitate in criticizing government policies. According to Major C L Dutta, former security officer at Rashtrapati Bhavan, relations between President and PM became strained as Radhakrishnan began to express freely his personal views on political issues and privately sought support for them . The most significant area of disagreement was Nehrus China policy. According to Dutta, following the massive Chinese aggression, Radhakrishnan and Congress president K Kamaraj in August 1963 worked out a formula for Nehrus retirement. Dutta records, The Congress Working Committee met to discuss the Kamaraj plan at PMs house. The meeting lasted far into the night. Meanwhile at Rashtrapati Bhavan, the President paced up and down waiting for the committees decision. When it finally arrived , it was a setback to the President. The Kamaraj axe had bounced. Nehru had seen through the game. He had used the proposals to purge his cabinet of those whom he suspected of wanting to step into his shoes.

Dr Zakir Hussain, who succeeded Radhakrishnan , was an eminent Gandhian educationist . As vice-president , he had conducted himself with dignity. Unfortunately, he couldnt complete his term and passed away on May 3, 1969 after a sudden heart attack.

GOONDA GIRI - The presidential election of 1969 was held in the backdrop of upheaval within the Congress following finance minister Morarji Desais exit from the Cabinet over bank nationalization . The official Congress candidate , Neelam Sanjiva Reddy, was defeated with PM Indira Gandhi supporting an independent , V V Giri, who won. Giri had been a labour leader. He had resigned from the Union cabinet over differences on bank employees demands. Giri was a down-to-earth politician. As UP governor, he told an assembly member Raj Narain, who was creating a ruckus during his speech, If you think you are a goonda, you must know I am a bigger goonda. I will not wait for the marshal to throw you out. It was during Giris tenure that Mrs Gandhi, in 1971, advised dissolution of Lok Sabha, calling for fresh elections. The President reportedly asked Mrs Gandhi if the ministers council had discussed the matter , implying that under the Constitution, it was the council of ministers advice that was to be respected by the President. Mrs Gandhi convened a Cabinet meeting and its recommendation was put up to the President . Even then, Giri did not immediately sign the proclamation. When the dissolution did come, the gazette notification made two points that it was done on the advice of council of ministers and after careful consideration . It was a clear assertion of Presidents powers.

On August 17, 1974, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed was elected the next President. He had been Union cabinet minister for many years holding charge of various portfolios including irrigation and power, food and agriculture , education etc. Shortly after dawn on June 26, 1975, a proclamation under Article 352 was issued by President Ahmed declaring that a grave emergency exists whereby the security of India is threatened by internal disturbance . Mass arrests followed. Extremist organizations were banned and strict press censorship imposed. Ahmed also issued an order on June 27, 1975, forbidding detainees from invoking their constitutional rights. Ahmed is often criticized for having accepted Indira Gandhis advice to declare Emergency without requiring the council of ministers to first consider the matter.

On Ahmeds sudden death in office on February 11, 1977, N Sanjiva Reddy, a Union cabinet minister in the 1960s and twice Lok Sabha Speaker , was declared President. He was a consensus candidate the first time that election to the highest office went uncontested.


On July 15, 1982, Giani Zail Singh, former home minister and Punjab CM, became President. When PM Indira Gandhi fell to assassins bullets in November 1984, there was a serious crisis of succession. The decision that Rajiv Gandhi would succeed his mother was actually taken in the flight that brought Rajiv from Calcutta to Delhi. On the special flight myself, I was privy to what happened . President Zail Singh who was abroad and landed in Delhi the same evening agreed to appoint him PM. Rajiv was not even a minister in the Congress government and Cabinet hadnt met to advise the President. Neither was he elected leader by the Congress Legislature Party. According to convention, the seniormost minister took over as interim PM. The point established with Rajivs appointment was that the President had unfettered right to appoint anyone in his discretion, provided Lok Sabha ratified the choice.

During Zail Singhs tenure, when flames of secession were fanned in Punjab, efforts were made to raise in the Lok Sabha matters related to his conduct. The Speaker, however , ruled that this could not be allowed. History was created when Singh did not give his assent to the postal Bill and it did not become law despite its passage by both Houses. Relations between Rajiv and the President had turned so bitter by 1986-87 that Singh was said to have been toying with the idea of dismissing the government and installing a national government. During the 1987 presidential election, the highest levels believed that something sinister was being planned. The aim, it was believed, was to have the election countermanded through a third presidential candidate so that President Singh continued in office and dismissed the Rajiv ministry. Massive efforts to have the nomination of the third candidate rejected failed, but the election went off smoothly.

Former minister of finance and defence, and incumbent Vice President, R Venkataraman , was declared President on 16 July, 1987. As the then secretary general, Lok Sabha, I was the elections returning officer. There were several constitutional crises requiring the President to function as what he called the emergency light . In the 1989 general elections, no major contender secured an absolute majority. The President faced the problem of whom to invite to form the government. The issue was resolved when Congress opted out. The National Front was invited and it accepted by electing V P Singh as leader. Government formation wasnt easy as two major forces, the Left parties and the BJP, supported the National Front but did not join government. When V P Singh didnt resign after BJP withdrew support, the Presidents task was delicate and difficult. This was a situation where the President had to use his own judgment . He asked Singh to prove his majority. The government lost the trust vote decisively and as events unfolded, it was possible to install an alternative government headed by Chandra Shekhar with Congress support.

Again, following the resignation of the Janata Dal(S) government headed by Chandra Shekhar in March 1991 before it had presented the Budget we were in the midst of an unprecedented constitutional crisis. Without a Budget or a vote-on-account , governance would have come to a standstill. It was difficult to understand how anyone could suggest to the President as some had done that having resigned, Chandra Shekhar had no authority to have a vote-onaccount taken. Some were of the view that if Lok Sabha failed to pass a vote-on-account and the appropriation Bill, the President could do so by an ordinance under Article 123. When consulted , I told the President that under the Constitution , he could not do so. The President had undisputed powers to issue fiscal ordinances , but there was not a single precedent of the President doing by an ordinance what Parliament did by passing a vote-on-account and an appropriation Bill. President Venkataraman decided the House could be dissolved only after passing a vote-on-account .


On July 16, 1992, incumbent Vice President Dr Shankar Dayal Sharma became the ninth President. Much has been said about President Sharmas decision to invite BJP to form government after the 11th general elections in May 1996. The President did the right thing. No party had received absolute mandate. Unless elections were to be reduced to an irrelevant farce, the only point to be considered by Sharma was who had the best mandate. Under Article 75(1), it was the President's prerogative and responsibility to see which party had the best claim to the mandate of the people and to invite its leader to become the PM . When it was found that the council of ministers did not enjoy the confidence of the House, it had to go and it did. Once a delegation met Sharma to give him a report on constitutional reforms and a member said they were presenting him the first copy because the President was like Lord Ganesh who is the first God to be worshipped and who could remove all obstacles. To this, President Sharma humourously remarked that he was only a Gobar Ganesh (a Ganesh idol made of cow dung). The remark was laughed away but in other private conversations Sharma had bemoaned the fact that he would often be brought papers by some government secretary who would point to the place where he had to put his signature, often without any time to read what the papers contained.

On July 25, 1997, incumbent Vice President K R Narayanan was sworn is as the next President. He would be best remembered for his strong stand in returning the proposals for promulgation of Presidents rule under Article 356.

Election of the 12th President was the most talked about and rightly so. Here was a person who had humble beginnings and rose to the lands highest position on sheer merit. Like US President Abraham Lincoln, Dr A P J Abdul Kalam had to struggle for a living and learning . In 2004s general elections , again no single party obtained a clear mandate. However, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance emerged as the largest alliance and Congress as largest single party . In a significant departure from tradition, not the leader of the largest alliance but her nominee, Rajya Sabha member, Dr Manmohan Singh, was called upon by President Kalam to form the government. There was much controversy over the effort to retrospectively from 1959 legalize the illegality of MPs including high functionaries holding offices of profit. The Parliament (Prevention of Disqualification) Bill passed by the two Houses was returned by the President with a message for reconsideration on May 30, 2006. The President, however , gave his assent when the Bill was passed again and presented to him.

Another controversy followed Governor Buta Singhs advice to impose Presidents rule in Bihar after the assembly election in 2005, on the ground that no political party was in a position to form government. In another report to the Centre, the Governor stated that a particular party (under Nitish Kumar ) may be close to getting majority and claim may be staked to form government . Despite this, the Union cabinet accepted the dissolution advice and faxed it to the President , then in Moscow. Kalam faxed back his approval. The notification dissolving the Assembly was issued on May 23, 2005. Later, the Supreme Court held void Bihar assemblys dissolution. The President had, perhaps, allowed himself in his simplicity to be hurried into signing a blatantly unconstitutional notification. He could have take his own time and held consultations before deciding. The incident again showed that the Presidents role was definitely not that of a mere rubber-stamp .

The present President, Pratibha Devisingh Patil, is the first woman to occupy this highest office. Her term so far has been reasonably free of constitutional controversies .

Rajendra Prasad (1884-1963 )
Term of Office - January 26, 1950 to May 13, 1962 First President of independent India. A freedom fighter, Rajendra Prasad was the only president to serve two terms in office

Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan (1888-1975 )

Term of Office - May 13, 1962 to May 13, 1967 A prominent philosopher, writer, a Knight of the Realm who held the position of vicechancellor of Andhra University and Banaras Hindu University. He was also made a Knight of the Golden Army of Angels by Pope Paul VI

Zakir Husain (1897-1969 )
Term of Office - May 3, 1967 to May 3, 1969 He was vice-chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University and a recipient of the Padma Vibhushan and Bharat Ratna. Husain died before his term of office ended

Shri Varahagiri Venkata Giri (1894-1980 )
Term of Office - May 3, 1969 to July 20, 1969 and August 24, 1969 to August 24, 1974 The only person to have the distinction of serving as both acting president and President of India. V V Giri was
a recipient of the Bharat Ratna, and his previous positions included minister of labour and high commissioner to Ceylon (Sri Lanka)

Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed (1905-1977 )
Term of Office - August 24, 1974 to February 11, 1977 A veteran politician, he held various cabinet posts including food & agriculture, education, industrial development, etc. He died in 1977 before his term ended, and was the second president to have died in office

Neelam Sanjiva Reddy (1913-1996 )
Term of Office - July 25, 1977 to July 25, 1982 N S Reddy was the first CM of Andhra Pradesh. He was the only MP from Janata Party to get elected from Andhra. He was unanimously elected Speaker of the Lok Sabha on March 26, 1977 and relinquished this office on July 13, 1977 to become the 6th President of India

Giani Zail Singh (1916-1994 )
Term of Office - July 25, 1982 to July 25, 1987 Zail Singh served as Punjab CM and later as Union home minister in the Indira Gandhi government

R Venkataraman (1910-2009 )
Term of Office - July 25, 1987 to July 25, 1992 A former freedom fighter, he first served as minister of finance and industry and later as minister of defence

Shankar Dayal Sharma (1918-1999 )
Term of Office - July 25, 1992 to July 25, 1997 Sharma had been chief minister of MP, and then Union minister for communications. He also served as the governor of A P, Punjab and Maharashtra. As vice-president , broke down in the Rajya Sabha while witnessing an ugly row by the members

K R Narayanan (1920-2005 )
Term of Office - July 25, 1997 to July 25, 2002 Indias first Dalit president. Served as Indias ambassador to Thailand, Turkey, China and the US. Regarded as an independent president who set several precedents and enlarged the scope of the highest constitutional office

A P J Abdul Kalam (born 1931)
Term of Office - July 25, 2002 to July 25, 2007 Eminent scientist and visionary who played a leading role in the development of Indias ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programmes. Kalam also received the Bharat Ratna and has authored 4 books

Pratibha Patil (born 1934)
Term of Office - July 25, 2007 - Patil is the first woman to become the President of India. She was also the first woman Governor of Rajasthan. In 2009, Patil followed Kalams prededent and flew in a fighter aircraft
(source : toi)

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