Relations between the president and prime minister were cordial to begin with. Indira Gandhi meticulously observed conventions, calling on Zail Singh regularly and consulting him on important state matters in sheer contrast to what her successor was to do later. In his posthumously published memoirs, Zail Singh claims that even when he was the Union home minister, Indira Gandhi had been hesitant to discuss Punjab affairs with him and had given a free hand to Chief Minister Darbara Singh. The two had always been at daggers drawn.
It was on Zail Singh's suggestion that Swaran Singh was asked to mediate between the government and the Akalis. The veteran Congressman and former Union cabinet minister worked a miracle. He brought about an agreement under which the controversial Anandpur Sahib Resolution would be referred to a Parliamentary Committee, the contentious city of Chandigarh be handed over to Punjab, the question of compensation to Haryana referred to a judicial body and Sikhs would be allowed to carry a small kirpan on plane journeys. But when the agreement was to be announced in Parliament, the president learnt that there had been a 'somersault'. Darbara Singh and other hard-liners managed to sabotage the agreement. "Swaran Singh seemed shocked beyond words."
Operation Blue Star was launched without the president's knowledge and against his advice to Indira Gandhi that no provocative action should be taken. In retrospect, Zail Singh stands vindicated. The chapter on this tragic episode is highly moving, reflect-ing the agony of a patriotic Sikh. No less a person than the President of India and the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, he was given "not even an inkling beforehand". The reason was astoundingly clear: the loyalty of the Rashtrapati was suspect! Subsequently, after succeeding his mother, Rajiv Gandhi asked K.K. Tewary, a Congress MP, to make the reckless charge on the floor of the Lok Sabha that the president had sheltered terrorists in the Rashtrapati Bhawan.
While strongly denouncing Sikh militancy and the methods of the Akali leadership, Zail Singh feels that the Golden Temple holocaust was avoidable. "In anguish, I asked the prime minister what our intelligence agencies were doing all these months when the arms build-up was going on. And why action had not been taken to apprehend Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, the extremist leader. I asked her if any police officer had been taken to task for negligence of duty in allowing terrorists to smuggle arms into the temple for almost two years. She had obviously no plausible answer.
With a distant look in her eyes, she replied feebly that it was the duty of the Punjab government to take care of these aspects." The former president's statement on the failure of the intelligence machinery has been borne out by subsequent investigations.
Zail Singh refutes as a canard, the allegation made by two BBC men in their book that it was he who had brought Bhindran-wale to the political centrestage. Another "fantastic lie", spread by his detractors was that he had touched Bhindranwale's feet. Zail Singh attributes all this calumny to Darbara Singh.
Rajiv Gandhi lost no time in slighting Zail Singh, even though he owed his spectacular ascent to power to the Giani. As thousands of innocent Sikhs were being butchered in Delhi and frantic calls for help were reaching Rashtrapati Bhawan, Zail Singh asked Rajiv Gandhi to call in the army. "He reacted in a lukewarm manner, saying that he was reviewing the situation. Ultimately, the army was called in but told not to open fire." When the calls for help stopped coming, the president realised that his telephone lines had been "doctored". "All I could do was to ask the prime minister of the country not to allow the blood of innocents be spilled for the crime committed by two misguided securitymen." Under Rajiv Gandhi's orders, the President was being steadily isolated. Reading the memoirs, one realises how far he went in his vendetta against Zail Singh. The daily Intelligence Bureau reports and other top secret files were withheld from him. Incredibly, some Congressmen close to the prime minister tried to persuade Zail Singh to go back to Punjab as chief minister. When this trick failed, Rajiv Gandhi spread word through his new-found friends in the press, that he was consulting legal experts on the possible impeachment of the President. Never was the Central Hall of Parliament more abuzz with rumours.
Understandably, Zail Singh was in great anguish because of the calculated humiliation heaped upon him. His memoirs give a graphic account of the war of words between the men who occupied the highest offices in the land. He tells Rajiv loyalists that if the government wished to ease him out, they should say so and he would quit immediately. "I asked Rajiv to be frank. I had no love for office or power. I could walk out any time. I was like a sojourner in an inn." When Rajiv Gandhi boasted publicly that he had broken hundreds of conventions, Zail Singh began to wonder that "if they could treat the President of India in such a brazen manner, what would be the fate of a common citizen." Had the young prime minister convinced himself that every institution in the land was obliged to play a 'tributory' role to him?
The press was manipulated by both camps in this unseemly war. Senior journalists including some editors had the time of their lives acting as self-appointed advisers to the president or prime minister. Slanderous stories doubting Zail Singh's patriotism were planted in the press. The latter cannot be blamed for sending a message to Rajiv Gandhi that he too, was consulting legal experts on the possible dismissal of the prime minister or his prosecution on corruption charges.
In a dramatic move, Zail Singh withheld his consent to a Bill to amend the Indian Postal Act of 1898, saying that it was too sweeping in its scope. He felt that the Government wanted arbitrary powers to intercept postal communications indiscriminately. This created a big sensation and memories of Indira Gandhi's infamous Emergency were revived. Obviously, the President was hitting Rajiv Gandhi where it would hurt most.
As Zail Singh's term was drawing to a close, there were inspired reports that he was planning to stand for a second term as an independent candidate. Delhi was agog with speculation that some wellwishers had assured him of campaign funds to the tune of Rs 40 crore. Surprisingly, the memoirs do not even mention this episode which rocked the country. Among others, Chandraswami was said to be busy collecting funds for him.
But some months after his retirement, the former president gave a lengthy interview to two prominent journalists. He said: "No one actually brought me any money. But there were many commitments made...Chandraswami said he knows some Sultan. He wanted me to contest for the second time. Somehow, this fellow had a dislike for Rajiv perhaps because Rajiv refused to encourage him." Asked whether the godman expected anything in return for his crores, Zail Singh told the two journalists that "nothing is ever given for nothing". Did Chandraswami ask for P.V. Narasimha Rao to be sworn in as PM? Answer: "Naam to zaroor chalaya tha."(Rao's name was definitely mentioned).
During the interview (which he never contradicted), Zail Singh disclosed that "so many people" including Rajiv Gandhi's ministers and well-known Congressmen visited him at Rashtrapati Bhawan. Asked whether R. Venkataraman showed any interest in becoming prime minister, Zail Singh said that he was upset on learning that Rajiv Gandhi wanted to make Shankaranand the president. "At one stage, Venkataraman had agreed to become prime minister but he never told me this directly.... Once the news of his being in touch with the dissidents was leaked out, he was offered the presidency and that was the end of it."
In his book My Presidential Years, Venkataraman, (who was the vice-president of India at that time), says that a senior Congress MP had called on him and suggested that the president's move to dismiss Rajiv Gandhi would carry conviction if he, (Ven-kataraman), agreed to become prime minister himself. He writes, "President Zail Singh asked me point-blank about my response to the MP's idea. I told him quite categorically that I did not want to be involved".
Tarlochan Singh, who was President Zail Singh's press officer, wrote in The Times of India a few weeks ago, that the dismissal threat was only a "deliberate ploy" by the Giani to frighten the prime minister and regain the initiative for himself. The truth is that constitutional experts and even some opposition leaders had told Zail Singh that the president had absolutely no authority to sack a prime minister enjoying majority support. Obviously, it was a war of nerves he was waging.
History is bound to judge Rajiv Gandhi and his mother harshly. Between them they had brought down the dignity of the Presidency. As for Zail Singh, he can perhaps plead that he was left with no choice but to fight back.