There is the naive idea among India’s political pundits that the president of India is a ceremonial and constitutional office, and that the president should be an eminent personality free of any political taint. And that the president should be above the political fray. Ironically, the process of choosing the president always turns out to be intensely political exercise. The Congress, BJP, chief ministers Mulayam Singh Yadav, Jayalalithaa, Mamata Banerjee, Naveen Patnaik, Nitish Kumar ponder and negotiate behind closed doors, wrack their brains and agonise as to who to choose and how to push their choice in the July presidential election. This is the most interesting political game in town. And the fight is not over a symbolic office with no powers.
Rajendra Prasad, the first president, and Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister, understood the politics of the president’s office. When Prasad aired the view in 1960 that it will be necessary to review and clarify the powers of the president, impetuous Nehru lost his cool. He said there was no need for discussion because it was clear that the president’s powers are those exercised by the prime minister and the council of ministers and there is no scope for independent exercise of power. Nehru was right because it was clear that it is the prime minister and the cabinet who rule, and the president at best governs. Prasad was looking at the presidential powers written into the constitution which look quite formidable on paper and he knew those powers are not empty words. Perhaps, Nehru’s annoyance was due to his awareness of this constitutional ambiguity.
There are enough examples to show the president’s political role over the years. President Sanjiva Reddy did not allow Janata Party’s claim to form a new government under a new leader, Jagjivan Ram, after Morarji Desai lost majority. Janata Party president Chandra Shekhar was livid with rage at Reddy’s decision, and he shouted to the press outside Rashtrapati Bhavan, ‘He (Reddy) should be impeached.’ It is not difficult to speculate that it was this decision that facilitated Indira Gandhi’s quick comeback to power in 1980.
President Shankar Dayal Sharma’s decision to let BJP form government in May 1996 continues to be debatable. He seems to have meticulously followed constitutional tradition that the party with the largest number of parties should be asked to form the government. The BJP government lasted for a mere 13 days because it could not win the support of the other non-Congress parties. It paved the way for the future National Democratic Alliance. Sharma may not have foreseen that his decision enabled the BJP and its allies to be in government for six years.
It is not just the Congress that does not favour an independent president. The BJP, which aspires to be like the Congress, too frowns at a strong president. In his 2001 Republic Day address to the nation, president KR Narayanan warned against ‘guided democracy’ and cited the example of Pakistan’s martial law ruler Ayub Khan’s idea of ‘basic democracy.’ This was in the context of the debate in BJP circles that there should be fixed tenure in office and there should be no frequent elections in order to avoid political instability. BJP leaders were angry with Narayanan.
It is perhaps for this reason that BJP found APJ Abdul Kalam, the missile engineer often mistaken for a scientist, to be an ideal presidential candidate. The BJP minister who accompanied Kalam in the ceremonial presidential election campaign, in informal remarks said that once he is (Kalam) seated in Rashtrapati Bhavan, there would be no problems. BJP partisans, according to rumour mills, believe that it was Kalam who prevented Congress president Sonia Gandhi from becoming prime minister in 2004 by citing some recondite provision that needed an India-Italy treaty that would allow an India-born to be prime minister in Rome for Italy-born Sonia Gandhi to be prime minister in Delhi. There was also the other equally diabolical story, still a story because it is not confirmed, that president Zail Singh planned to dismiss the Rajiv Gandhi government in 1987. It is delicious/vicious gossip that tells a serious tale: the political importance of a president.
There is need to bring down the president from an unrealistic constitutional pedestal. And even when a non-politician like Kalam is made president, he has no choice but to be political and he cannot avoid political decisions. The pretence that the Indian president should not be political should be given up.