Open Essay

All the President’s Mien

Sunanda K Datta-Ray is a journalist and author of several books. He is an Open contributor
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A brief history of the interface between the ceremonial and the political

VISITING DELHI FROM Singapore where I lived then some 20 years ago, I asked Dr Karan Singh why he hadn’t stood for President. He said it was time for a Dalit to occupy Rashtrapati Bhavan. With the NDA nominating an unknown Ram Nath Kovind, the wheel has turned full circle since 1997 when KR Narayanan became the tenth President of India.

Narayanan wasn’t unknown. But despite his achievements, he was perhaps the most human man in the job. I remember Sheila Watumull’s story of Mari, the elephant she and her husband David imported from India and which Indira Gandhi presented to the Honolulu zoo. The Watumulls gave a dinner party by their open air swimming pool to celebrate the event, and, in a fit of American egalitarianism, Sheila (a white American who succeeded David as India’s honorary consul) invited Mari’s mahout to the party. Local Indian celebrities, the Prime Minister’s entourage, and the Honolulu glitterati didn’t know how to handle the situation. But India’s future President was not fazed. Ambassador Narayanan, as he then was, picked up his plate without a word, took it over to where the mahout was sitting by himself, and sat down beside him. They spent the rest of the evening chatting amiably. His predecessor, Shankar Dayal Sharma, could also rise above petty inhibitions. There was great excitement once in social circles when Sharma addressed Mayo College students as “Your Highnesses”. Asked about it, he said that having fought and defeated the princes during his political career in Bhopal, he could afford to show them some respect.

But Presidents belong to a larger context. Had Pranab Mukherjee watched BBC television on June 9th, he would have noted that when Theresa May drove back from Buckingham Palace after obtaining Queen Elizabeth’s permission to form a new government, she went straight to the lectern set up in Downing Street and read out from a pre-written speech already there that the Queen had agreed to her request. He might have noted the dual symbolism. May couldn’t have gone ahead without the Head of State’s formal approval. The Head of State could not have refused the leader of the biggest party in Parliament. Surveying the tranquility of the last five years in the gathering twilight of his term, Mukherjee might also recall his own now almost forgotten role in the protracted guerrilla warfare between the once fervent Nehru-Gandhi loyalist, Giani Zail Singh, and Rajiv Gandhi, the man he had made Prime Minister. It’s probably the most exciting passage in presidential history.

It used to be said in British India that the divine right of kings descended on the Viceroy and trickled down through governors and district collectors even to subdivisional officers. That was in a social sense. Since 1950, the President of India’s position has been in many ways constitutionally analogous to that of the British monarch. When some Constituent Assembly members wanted the President to be explicitly bound to act only on ministerial advice, Jawaharlal Nehru replied that Article 74 of the Constitution made it clear he had to perform ‘all functions whatsoever’ only on the aid and advice of the council of ministers. ‘The moment the President refuses to accept its aid and advice, there’ll be a breakdown in the constitutional machinery,’ Nehru wrote on October 6th, 1950. Any formal restriction would derogate from the dignity of a Head of State who embodies the majesty of the biggest democracy in the world of which he is also supreme commander-in-chief. He would abide by convention as British monarchs do.

There was great excitement once in social circles when Shankar Dayal Sharma addressed Mayo College students as “Your Highnesses”. Asked about it, he said that having fought and defeated the princes during his political career in Bhopal, he could afford to show them some respect

Despite being the butt of so many jokes, the seventh President was astutely aware of the parallel. Asked to justify Rajiv’s appointment in 1984, Zail Singh replied without hesitation he had done no more than the Queen when Anthony Eden resigned without advising her on his successor. She appointed Harold Macmillan on the advice of people she had consulted. Singh had also spoken to various persons and concluded that Rajiv alone could manage India in those perilous times after Indira Gandhi’s murder. We will never know the Queen’s version. We will never know if she asked May for proof that the 10 Democratic Unionist Party MPs would support her 318 Tories in a hung House of 650 members. Not one word of the hundreds of conversations she has had with 13 prime ministers since ascending the throne in 1952 has ever been disclosed. Britain is not the US where the former FBI director, James Comey, cryptically admitted he had asked a close friend (later identified as a Columbia University law professor) to leak a memo about his dealings with Donald Trump. Britain is even less like India where Jyoti Basu complained after West Bengal’s watershed 1967 elections that Dharma Vira, the ex-ICS governor, wanted United Front legislators paraded in the Raj Bhavan drawing room before swearing in their leader as chief minister.

That was the age of turbulence when the redoubtable Rajmata Vijay Raje Scindia reportedly locked up in a medieval fort fickle legislators likely to succumb to the other side’s blandishments. That’s when Haryana gave birth to the ‘Aya Ram Gaya Ram’ phenomenon. The chief minister, Rao Birendra Singh, immortalised the term when welcoming the errant Gaya Lal, an MLA who made a practice of crossing sides, back to the Congress fold, proclaiming, “Gaya Ram is now Aya Ram!” One doesn’t know what motivated Gaya Lal and whether the governor’s was the hidden hand for few governors are disposed to abide by the Supreme Court warning that their ‘limited powers … should be used in a fair manner, so that democracy survives’. Politicians blamed (or praised) Arunachal Pradesh’s governor when 43 out of 44 ruling Congress Party MLAs defected last year to a Bharatiya Janata Party ally.

As a rule, presidents are spared such difficult decisions. The eighth President, Ramaswamy Venkataraman, may have had some misgivings about both Chandra Sekhar and Vishwanath Pratap Singh. But if hindsight is to be believed, Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam had none about Sonia Gandhi. If she ‘had made any claim for herself, I would have had no option but to appoint her,’ the ‘Missile Man’ wrote in his memoirs, Turning Points: A Journey Through Challenges. At the time, however, many felt that the wording of his letter to Sonia Gandhi was not quite the normal invitation to form a Government. It sounded more like an offer to discuss the vacancy. The ambivalence was attributed not to protests and pressures but to considerations of nationality and the comparable rights of naturalised citizens in India and Italy. Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed had no compunction about showing how all problems could be wished away. When Indira Gandhi’s messenger woke him up around midnight of June 25th, 1977 to say there was an “imminent danger to the security of India being threatened by internal disturbances”, the fifth President readily signed on the dotted line declaring an Emergency. People sneered that while his oath of office required him to ‘preserve, protect and defend the Constitution’, he had preserved, protected and defended Indira Gandhi.

Most presidents slip into the grandeur of Rashtrapati Bhavan as to the manner born. Some suffer adjustment difficulties afterwards. The board outside R Venkataraman’s retirement bungalow in Delhi read ‘Former President of India’ lest anyone forget the status he had enjoyed

Most presidents slip into the grandeur of the 340-room Rashtrapati Bhavan as to the manner born. Some suffer adjustment difficulties afterwards. The board outside Venkataraman’s retirement bungalow in Lutyens Delhi read ‘Former President of India’ lest anyone forget the status he had enjoyed. After five years in the presidential palace, Pratibha Patil could hardly be expected to squeeze into a 2,000-sq-ft ‘living area’ or a 5,498-sq-ft bungalow which is all the rules allow. So the authorities allotted her a 2.61 lakh-sq-ft plot of land in Pune and sanctioned a new, 4,500-sq-ft bungalow to the indignation of the Justice for Jawans NGO which objected that there was an acute shortage of accommodation for soldiers in Pune. It cannot have realised that Patil was not just anybody. She had stayed with the Queen in Windsor Castle. When the fourth President, VV Giri, became the first Indian head of state to visit Singapore, he and his extended entourage were put up at the Hilton Hotel where his two daughters created problems of protocol, precedence and presents by claiming to be ladies in waiting. They did not lack foreign exchange for the mounds of saris they bought. Mrs Giri, a strict and fussy vegetarian, rejected the hotel’s offer of a special cook and converted one of the rooms in their suite into a kitchen where she cooked all their meals herself on a sigri.

Nehru’s concept of a titular non-party President to act and behave like the British monarch overlooked the difference in national temperaments and the importance Indians attach to a job. He himself set the ball of discord rolling even before the first President’s appointment by writing to Rajendra Prasad on September 10th, 1949 claiming that he and Vallabhbhai Patel had decided that ‘the safest and best course’ would be to appoint C Rajagopalachari. Nehru’s ‘alternative truth’—Patel knew nothing of the so-called decision—incensed the ambitious Prasad who promptly replied that while he sought no office—a typical piece of Indian humbug—his standing in the party clearly deserved better treatment. Reiterating some of the points he had made in a note to Nehru on March 21st, 1950, Prasad suggested shortly before stepping down that a panel of jurists investigate the President’s rights and powers. Nehru disapproved of Prasad’s patronage of the Somnath Temple renovation project, his insistence on contacting governors and secretaries direct, and his claim he could dispense with ministerial advice in certain situations.

When Indira Gandhi’s messenger woke Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed up around midnight of June 25th, 1977, to say there was an “imminent danger to the security of India being threatened by internal disturbances”, he readily signed on the dotted line declaring an Emergency

That controversy reverberated again during the Giani’s’s muted power struggle with the man he had made Prime Minister. Sitting on the other side of a large radio set in Rashtrapati Bhavan he told me once that Indira Gandhi would sit in the very chair I occupied when she visited almost every week to keep him abreast of events. Rajiv hardly ever called and didn’t bother to tell him anything. Those who had access to Rashtrapati Bhavan heard the President say waggishly with a mischievous gleam in his eye and a toss of the turbaned head that he could sack the Prime Minister. Rajiv begged editors to appreciate the difficulty of explaining in Hindi that the Government could not be sacked at whim because it was said to ‘hold office during the pleasure of the President’. Zail Singh’s unprecedented step of in effect killing the Indian Post Office (Amendment) Bill that would have allowed the Government to read private mail had made him popular with the media. Pranab Mukherjee, then President of the short-lived Rashtriya Samajwadi Congress, plunged into the fray. He and Gundu Rao called at Rashtrapati Bhavan with a memorandum against Rajiv Gandhi urging the Giani not to agree to the Bill. According to the President, Mukherjee also addressed a press conference supporting Zail Singh’s reservations.

In politics, said Nick Clegg, Britain’s former deputy Prime Minister, on being defeated in the June 8th election, “You live by the sword and you die by the sword.” Defeated Indian politicians don’t die. They appeal to the Supreme Court. Every presidential election, barring those of Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Pratibha Patil, has been contested. In theory, it’s a conscience vote without party whips. In practice, it’s a ruthless battle determined by money and lobbying. Not that Kovind’s election is in doubt for despite feverish pledges of consensus, the laurels usually go to the candidate whose sponsors command the greatest resources. But loyalty can’t be taken for granted. That is why strong political parties prefer anonymous candidates. Anonymity means obedience.