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The accidental President

Kalam?s decision to return the Office of Profit Bill is not surprising, writes Vir Sanghvi. Is he an ideal President?

india Updated: Jun 03, 2006 04:22 IST

President Abdul Kalam’s decision to return the Office of Profit Bill will not surprise anyone who has followed his time at Rashtrapati Bhavan. Kalam is a man of strong views, though these are not usually revealed to the media. For instance, it is rumoured that when A.B. Vajpayee asked the President to dissolve Parliament and call for a general election two years ago, Kalam had a scheme of his own in mind.

His idea was that the Prime Minister should resign because it would be wrong for the government to continue in office while elections were being held. The Vajpayee government was appalled. The Law Minister was despatched to Rashtrapati Bhavan to lecture the President on the finer points of the Constitution and, eventually, the matter led to a stand-off: Kalam would not change his view and Vajpayee would not resign.

In the event, it was the President who blinked.

The government remained in office, elections were held on schedule, and when the verdict went against him, Vajpayee gracefully resigned, upholding the traditions of Indian democracy.

It is hard to say how true this story is. After a brief period during which the Vajpayee PMO leaked negative stories about President K.R. Narayanan, South Block maintained the confidentiality of the President-Prime Minister relationship. Vajpayee has never spoken about this stand-off, and each time I have asked any member of the last government what really happened, the answer has always been a terse ‘No comment’.

Kalam gets away with these rather individualistic stands because he has no political axe to grind. The Vajpayee government regarded Narayanan as a Congress appointee and most recent Presidents have tended to be veteran politicians put out to pasture in the verdant surroundings of the Mughal Gardens.

But Kalam has never expressed any political views at all. His own candidacy for the office came as a complete surprise to him. And he is probably the first accidental President of India’s history. If the Vajpayee government had had its way, it would have preferred to see P.C. Alexander at Rashtrapati Bhavan. The Congress wanted another term for Narayanan (which Vajpayee turned down) and then, was not confident enough of getting the numbers required to have Karan Singh elected.

When a last-minute compromise solution, worked out by Brajesh Mishra and Natwar Singh, to pitchfork Vice President Krishna Kant into the job collapsed because of the BJP’s hostility to him (an Inder Gujral appointee and pretty much an accidental Vice President himself), the NDA searched around desperately for a new candidate.

Abdul Kalam’s name had first been suggested by Mulayam Singh, who knew him from his stint at the Defence Ministry and thought that a Muslim candidate would appeal to the Samajwadi Party constituency. But that suggestion had largely faded from memory when it was suddenly revived in the desperate search for a new President. The Congress did not object because Kalam was outside the political system, had strong credentials as a Dr Strangelove-type defence expert and — let’s face it — because he was a Muslim.

Ever since he got into Rashtrapati Bhavan, Kalam has proved to be something of an unknown quantity. His public ‘mad scientist in need of hair-cut’ persona seems less interesting now than it did when he was sworn in. And people are still a little taken aback by his effusive love for children and adolescents. But, as the first confirmed bachelor to take residence at Rashtrapati Bhavan, he has transformed our perception of what a President should be like. And, if the rumours are true, beneath the man-who-needs-a-comb exterior there lies a maverick with strong views on how governments should behave.

But the manner in which Kalam got the job tells us something about how India chooses its Presidents. In the old days, the likes of S. Radhakrishnan and Zakir Hussain were men of stature, universally respected for their intellect and able to exert a moral authority on the political system.

This tradition collapsed in 1969 when the Syndicate (Morarji Desai, S.K. Patil, Kamraj, Atulya Ghosh, etc) that ran the Congress party tried to impose Sanjeeva Reddy, an old-style political hack, on the country. Sensing public disillusionment with the choice, Indira Gandhi made her move, backing V.V. Giri instead, a stratagem that led not only to the Congress split but also to the effective devaluation of the moral authority of the President.

Giri was so grateful to Mrs Gandhi for getting him the job that he was content to sign on the dotted line whenever asked. His successor, Fakruddin Ali Ahmed, did not so much as utter a cheep of protest when Mrs Gandhi proceeded to suspend democracy, lock up the Opposition and censor the press during the Emergency.

Eventually, when the Janata Party came to office and Morarji Desai, a member of the old Syndicate, became Prime Minister, an attempt was made to turn back the clock by sending Sanjeeva Reddy to Rashtrapati Bhavan. Reddy reminded us why there had been so many doubts about his candidacy the first time around by waging an open battle with his old Syndicate mentors and fighting a public war with Morarji Desai. (Morarji published their correspondence in 1983 in a book he authorised.)

By the time Indira Gandhi appointed Giani Zail Singh to the job, it was clear that the era of Radhakrishnan and Zakir Hussain had passed. Singh’s record as a political hack was so poor that it made Sanjeeva Reddy seem like a moral giant in comparison. Shortly after he was appointed Home Minister, he grovelled before Sanjay Gandhi, publicly referring to him as his ‘rehnuma’ (benefactor). When he was nominated for the presidency, he declared, “I will do whatever Indiraji wants me to. If she wants me to pick up a broom and sweep the room, I will do that.”

And yet, once he was ensconced in Rashtrapati Bhavan, he proceeded to undermine Mrs Gandhi by sabotaging talks with the Akalis, aimed at solving the Punjab problem. When Rajiv Gandhi succeeded his mother, Zail Singh expected Rajiv to be grateful that he had sworn him in without a murmur. Later, sensing that Rajiv was not grateful enough to give him a second term, the Giani turned Rashtrapati Bhavan into a den of sleaze, conspiring with the likes of Chandra Swami to dismiss the legally-elected government of India.

Fortunately, standards have improved somewhat since Zail Singh’s exit. R. Venkatraman was a compromise choice to succeed the Giani (Rajiv had wanted Shankaranand, who nearly became the first Harijan President) and he elevated the level of the presidency — not difficult to do when your predecessor is Zail Singh. Shankar Dayal Sharma was well-meaning and harmless, and Narayanan was actually the best President we’ve had in many decades: witty, erudite and dignified.

But we still do not have a system that ensures that India gets the President it deserves. The scramble that followed the end of Narayanan’s term (which threw up Kalam’s name) demonstrated how compromise candidates tend to be favoured over men and women of merit and capability. I doubt very much if anyone will want to give Kalam a second term. And yet, though the presidential election is due next year, nobody’s even thought of possible candidates.

No doubt when the time comes, there will be the usual desperate search for compromises. And once again we will end up with an accidental President.