President Pranab Mukherjee, by recent actions and statements, has brought the focus back on the role of his office. Significantly he forced a rethink on the ordinance overturning a Supreme Court verdict on the debarring of convicted lawmakers while a bill was pending in Parliament on the same subject. Despite the Congress claiming that its Vice President was the agent provocateur, clearly the play was from Raisina Hill.
End 1984, as Deputy Secretary to President Zail Singh, I resided at 19, Willingdon Crescent. Mr Pranab Mukherjee, just sacked from the cabinet for suggesting that after Mrs Indira Gandhi’s assassination the next senior minister, being himself, be sworn-in as interim PM, moved-in next door. He lived a quiet existence, using the house as rendezvous point for meeting his few remaining intimates. Contrariwise, my residence over time became a hub of activity as President-Prime Minister relations worsened culminating in a full-scale confrontation by the beginning of 1987 and the countdown to the last seven months of Zail Singh presidency. Mr Mukherjee formed an insignificant party and waited for the Congress door to open as the crisis in the party deepened.
Our paths crossed many times thereafter, till I retired in 2008, but never did he raise that period. He had internalised the hurt. He was bypassed in 2004 by his own protégé for the post of prime minister, ignored again in 2009. Once more he was snubbed by Sonia Gandhi when his elevation to Deputy Prime Minister was speculated, which he did not immediately deny, forcing her to curtly refute it. He was denied the post of President in 2007 on the pretext that his services were critical to the functioning of the UPA government. Finally, the manner of his elevation in 2012 itself left an impression that he was not Sonia Gandhi’s first choice.
A quarter century later, he sits in Rashtrapati Bhawan as murmurs are afloat that in the eventuality of a fragmented mandate in the next Lok Sabha elections he may be a consensus candidate to lead a national government. Whether that happens or not, he is positioned for a historic role. The 42nd Constitution amendment in 1976 limited the presidential role to a blanket following of whatever advice was tendered by the government. The Janta party government, by the 44th amendment in 1978, expanded that to return any advice once; but if it were sent back to him, he would be bound to abide by it. The amendments were to settle the debate begun by Dr Rajendra Prasad, the first president, while addressing the Indian Law Institute in 1960, that there was no provision in the constitution that “ President shall be bound to act in accordance with the advice of his Council of Ministers”.
The reverse of this assertiveness was the presidential pusillanimity witnessed in the signing of the ordinance imposing emergency on the nation in 1975 by President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed without protest. President Neelam S. Reddy showed some chutzpah resisting the Mandal Commission ordinance and granting of minority status to the Aligarh Muslim University. Limits of presidential power were however tested during the term of Giani Zail Singh (1982-87), who began his term pronouncing that he would sweep the floor if so required by Indira Gandhi. Following her death, he was forced to fight back, for presidential dignity, after her son and successor Rajiv Gandhi for two years breached convention and constitutional provisions in denying the president consultation and information. At the beginning of 1987, casual sacking of the Foreign Secretary had already irked public opinion when President Singh held up the Postal Bill, proposing government snooping of mail. Then followed the Bofors scandal, rout in Haryana elections and resignation of defence minister V.P.Singh. President Singh claimed controversially the inherent power to sack a prime minister who was using his office to cover-up malfeasance. He based it on the presidential Oath of Office, which unlike that of the Prime Minister, as per Article 60 of the Constitution, enjoins the president to ” ...the best of my ability preserve, protect and defend the Constitution and the law..”. This he concluded over-rode the limitations imposed by A. 74. A humbled Rajiv Gandhi sued for peace and surface amity was restored as Singh’s term ended in July 1987.
All President Singh’s successors had the luxury of dealing with weak or coalition- supported PMs. Most acted in the highest interests of the nation, establishing conventions on how to select a ruling coalition in hazy political conditions. President Mukherjee has old hurts to nurse or even ambitions unrequited. His choice of aides has been controversial, gathering officers from external affairs and finance ministries as trophies, without functionality. He must scotch rumours about being himself in political play and not thrust himself into political maelstroms like his visit to Bihar at Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s behest, clashing with the rally of Mr Narendra Modi [This article was written before the change of presidential plans -- Web Ed]. In fact a constitution amendment is desirable that anyone holding the President’s office shall be ineligible for any other public office thereafter. Pranab Mukherjee must, as he once joked, be PM only in initials. His predecessors have left him a legacy that he must defend without fear or favour.
The writer is a former ambassador to Iran. A version of this article appears in print