Dawn News

India’s presidency today

ON July 22, India elected the 13th president of the republic since the constitution came into force on Jan 26, 1950. He is Pranab Kumar Mukerjee, a veteran who has held high offices in the Union cabinet, most notably as minister of finance, his forte.

But he was also defence minister for a time and visited Pakistan as minister for external affairs. A politician to his fingertips, he is also an efficient administrator. Few of his predecessors could claim the experience he has acquired in the last four decades.

To superficial observers within India and outside, India’s presidency presents the aspect of a well-run institution. Nothing can be farther from the truth. The first two presidents, both men of the highest distinction, came close to abusing the office to amass power for themselves in total subversion of the constitution. In 1987, President Zail Singh was on the verge of sacking Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi arbitrarily and unconstitutionally. In between there have been ‘rubber-stamp’ presidents who were ever eager to do as they were told by a powerful prime minister, Indira Gandhi.

The text is simple, perhaps misleadingly so. Article 52 says, “There shall be a president of India” while Article 53 provides that “The executive power of the Union shall be vested in the president and shall be exercised by him either directly or through officers subordinate to him in accordance with this constitution” and that “Without prejudice to the generality of the foregoing provision, the supreme command of the defence forces of the Union shall be vested in the president and the exercise thereof shall be regulated by law.” The president is not elected directly but by an electoral college consisting of central and state legislators. The prime minister, however, is responsible to the Lok Sabha, the directly elected lower house of parliament.

One would have thought that this indicated the proper equation. Article 74 provided originally that “There shall be a council of ministers with the prime minister at the head to aid and advise the president”. This was misread with Article 75, which says: “(1) The prime minister shall be appointed by the president and the other ministers shall be appointed by the president on the advice of the prime minister…. (2) The ministers shall hold office during the pleasure of the president.” The misreading lay in the argument that the prime minister’s advice was not declared by the constitution to be binding on the president and, in any case, that he held office “during the pleasure of the president.”

This flew in the face of repeated assertions in the constituent assembly by the chairman of its drafting committee, Dr B.R. Ambedkar, and by Jawaharlal Nehru that the president would occupy the same position as the crown does in Britain. The main objective was declared at the outset by Vallabhbhai Patel on July 15, 1947 that the committees dealing with the Union and state constitutions “came to the conclusion that it would suit the conditions of this country better to adopt the parliamentary system of constitution, the British type of constitution with which we are familiar”. Hence, the use in the texts adopted of language in vogue in British practice for the crown’s powers.

Ambedkar explained on Nov 4, 1948, “Under the draft constitution the president occupies the same position as the king under the English constitution. He is the head of state but not of the executive. He represents the nation but does not rule the nation…. The president of the Indian Union will be generally bound by the advice of his ministers. He can do nothing contrary to their advice nor can he do anything without their advice.”

The president of the constituent assembly, Dr Rajendra Prasad, heard all this. But as the first president of India he cited the letter to subvert the entire scheme. He sent a note to Prime Minister Nehru on March 21, 1950, less than two months after he became president, contending that he enjoyed vast discretionary powers. The attorney general, M.C. Setalvad, the best India has had, opined against him. He sent another note in 1951. The AG again opined against him.

As for his successor, Dr S. Radhakrishnan, then-US ambassador Chester Bowles records in his memoir, “On several occasions he expressed to me in a half-joking manner the wish that somehow after Nehru’s death or retirement the whole country could operate under president’s rule for a few months.”

Prasad failed because parliament and the nation supported Nehru completely. Radhakrishnan failed because none supported him. His successor, Dr Zakir Hussain, who died after two years in office, would have emerged as the best India had had if he had but lived for the full term. On his death in 1969 the Congress party split. Indira Gandhi would take no chances. One rubber-stamp president was elected after another. Article 74(1) was amended in 1976 to make it clear that the president “shall, in the exercise of his functions, act in accordance with” the advice of his ministers. In 1978 this was qualified by a proviso which enabled him to ask the council of ministers to “reconsider” its advice, but “the president shall act in accordance with the advice tendered after such reconsideration.”

Elected in 1992, Dr Shankar Dayal Sharma accepted the curbs as proper but wielded the limited discretionary power which belongs to the British crown — to advise, to encourage and to warn. He asserted his independence on Dec 6, 1992, the day the Babri mosque at Ayodhya was demolished, by a statement which raised the president’s stature: “The president, Dr Shankar Dayal Sharma, has strongly deplored vandalism that has caused damage to the masjid in Ayodhya … has requested the prime minister to initiate appropriate expeditious steps to uphold the rule of law.”

He rendered high service in restoring the balance. In 2012, the president is neither a rubber stamp nor a power centre; he is a monitor, a custodian of constitutional values. It only remains to be added that since 1955 the Supreme Court of India has repeatedly cited British conventions and laid down beyond dispute that it is a proper parliamentary system which the constitution of India establishes.

The writer is an author and lawyer based in Mumbai.

Comments (16) Closed

Jul 28, 2012 02:22pm
Who care useless article.
R K Durrani
Jul 28, 2012 04:32am
A G noorani stop ur biased islamic agenda propaganda ....Zakir hussein was definitely a good indian muslim ... but no way was he going to be best president even if he lived more .... despite ur anti-hindu tirade we believe rajendra prasad radhakrishnan were good n dr APJ abdul kalam was the best president till date ...get out of your religious stupor n dont take india n indian democractic political system n secularism for granted .
Jul 28, 2012 02:37pm
pakistan have no right to comment on our honourable ex-presidents and current president. mind your own business.
Jul 28, 2012 09:01am
Very few in India know Zakir Hussain and what is his contribution to our mother land ? Nothing...Best president is Dr.Radhakrishnan and we observe teacher's day in his memory . I don't have much idea about Mr.Prasad , But again Mr.Kalam is one of the greatest .But more than these presidents , we remember our PMs like Nehru who was architect of modern India . We recognize VallabhBhai Patel who united India .
F. Khan
Jul 29, 2012 01:56am
Hurts where it hurts the most, take it eaasy!
Jul 28, 2012 02:12pm
Noorani does not find anything worthwhile to write about India, despite being an Indian and having minted money as a lawyer practicing in Mumbai. He glibly asserts that Rajendra Prasad and Radhakrishnan wanted to "assert" themselves against Nehru. Rajendra Prasad was a devout if conservative Hindu. When Nehru introduced the Hindu code bill that gave Hindu women several legal rights that were denied earlier, Rajendra Prasad did express his reservations - but gave in when Nehru persisted. He also did not press the issue when Nehru objected to Sardar Patel's plan to restore to Hindus the sacred temples at Ayodhya, Mathura and Varanasi. In deference to Nehru he did not even inaugurate the restored Somnath temple sacked 11 times by the Muslim marauder Mahmud Ghaznavi in the 10th Century AD. Radhakrishnan did nothing improper as President. Yet he conducted himself with great diginity. He was rightly described as a "philosopher among statesmen and a statesman among philosophers". As for Zakir Hussain, there is nothing of any note he did as President, nor was his pre independence contribution noteworthy.
Jul 28, 2012 08:45am
Presidents and kings/queens are mostly rubber stamps in parliamentary democracies.
Jul 28, 2012 10:43am
Congress has chosen Pranab Mukerjee not because he held offices in the union Cabinet or his efficiency as administrator. He is there because he has repeatedly proved his unwavering loyalty to Gandhi dynasty. He was leader of Congress alright but most definitely not a visionary statesman. When Mrs Gandhi imposed of emergency during 1975 to 77, suspended constitution, jailed political leaders, committed worst possible atrocities, Pranab Mukerjee was integral part of the government and party to the violation of Constitution He is now President of India not because he is expected up hold the constitution but to take care of Congress party interest in the ensuing election of 2014. , the role of President becomes important because he is the one who decides which party he should invite first to form the government. He can say that in his wisdom the party with the largest number of members in the Lok Sabha cannot give the country a stable government. He is thus entitled to ask the No. 2 party to try its hand at government formation!
Gaurav Arya
Jul 28, 2012 05:04am
Disagree with RK Durrani. There is no Islamic propaganda being spread and no anti-Hindu tirade. AG Noorani is an Indian and he has the right to say what he wants openly. We may disagree with him but we have to defend his right to say it. Zakir Hussain was perhaps one of the greatest minds India has produced, and was at the level of Ambedkar and Nehru. Yes, APJ Kalam was a great president, a genius with a simple soul who excelled in science and who opend up the Rashtrapati Bhawan (President's Palace) to the common man. But as a visionary, I dont think he holds a candle to Zakir Hussain.
Jul 28, 2012 05:25am
APJ Abdul kalam was the best. How can he not figure in the list. He was the best because he inspired indians to be good. He is and will be our role model. The Federal government should have honesty and riteousness to dare to put a president who is not a sychophant. Congress has hurt its image immsely by installing Mrs patil. Indians of today do not overlook such acts of suppression.
Prabhat Pal
Jul 28, 2012 06:03am
But Zakir Hussain was indeed a great personality, and I think he can easily qualify to be called the best President India could have had. By the way, APJ was also a rubber stamp by BJP to rid itself of it's communal image.
Jul 28, 2012 04:35pm
dr a p j abdul kalam is the best president uptill now, it is clear that indian constitution gives the monitering power to president , and his main function is to protect the constitution of india , but if he thinks that there is violation of constitution he he also have power to take step on it. Full executable power aquired by prime minister who is directly chosen by the people parlmentory democratic system . So there is very gud balance of power between PM & president....
Jul 28, 2012 06:44pm
Basic rule One Active than Other should be Passive than system gets balances .It both active than ..Heat Heat...only e.g. If Active Democratic Govt .aganst ever Active Pak Army....We see the consequences . This is secret of sustained indian democracy . Let it go for stability of Country ;
Pankaj Patel (USA)
Jul 28, 2012 09:33pm
Author has expressed his biased view about Indian presidents by telling that Dr Zakir Hussain was best.He has a wishful thinking that India would have become an Islamic country.All Pakistanis think every one in terms of Muslim and non Muslim only.Let us not bring that evil to India.India had best presidents like Dr Rajendra Prasad,Dr Radha krishnan and Dr Abdul Kalam.India is a secular country and religion has no place in public life.This journalist is not objective and his views are biased based up on religion.If you ask any Indian Muslim most of them will confirm what I said and we are proud of them.
Jul 28, 2012 10:03pm
If he can write about the 'Arrogance of US Congress' why not Indian presidents?
Adyar. Chennai
Jul 28, 2012 11:13pm
dude, every body has a right to express their opinion