In the five years he was in office, President
K R Narayanan had to face knotty questions of constitutional law
and practice, which had serious political implications. He had to
dissolve the Lok Sabha twice, in 1997 and in 1999; swear in a
Prime Minister on as many occasions; twice decline the advice of
the council of ministers to impose President's rule -- in Uttar
Pradesh in 1997 and in Bihar in 1998. He was constrained more than
once to express his anguish at what was happening in the country
and to caution against any radical change of the Constitution.
This did not endear him to some. Two political parties, in
particular, resented his actions.
Under the Constitution of India, the President "shall, in the
exercise of his functions, act in accordance with" the advice of
the council of ministers, headed by the Prime Minister (Article 74
(1)). However, it is open to him to require it "to reconsider such
advice." If reiterated, the President will be bound to act in
accordance with the advice "tendered after such reconsideration."
Article 78 empowers the President to seek information on the
affairs of the Union and makes it the Prime Minister's duty to
keep him informed.
Ours is a Parliamentary system based on the British model. As Dr B
R Ambedkar told the Constituent Assembly on December 30, 1948,
"Under a Parliamentary system of government, there are only two
prerogatives which the King or the head of State may exercise. One
is the appointment of the Prime Minister and the other is the
dissolution of Parliament. With regard to the Prime Minister, it
is not possible to avoid vesting the discretion in the
The President's discretionary power, his prerogative, comes into
play, if a general election returns a hung Lok Sabha in which the
majority is uncertain or the coalition that claims a majority
insecure. Likewise, if the Prime Minister advises dissolution of
the Lok Sabha though the Opposition is able to form an alternative
President Narayanan's greatest legacy will be the practice he
followed of explaining in detail to the nation, through a
Rashtrapati Bhavan communiqué, the reasons behind his decisions.
This is a precedent in the fine traditions of democracy that no
successor can ignore.
Just three months after he assumed office, President Narayanan was
confronted with a letter from the leader of the Congress Party,
Sitaram Kesri, on November 28, 1997, withdrawing support from
prime minister Inder Kumar Gujral's United Front government with
'immediate effect.' Kesri also staked claim to form the
Deciding on the first point was easy, since Gujral promptly
resigned. Narayanan consulted leaders of other parties as far as
Kesri's claim to form the government was concerned. Meanwhile,
Gujral advised dissolution of the Lok Sabha. The President
accepted the advice, since he found Kesri could not substantiate
his claim of majority support. He issued a long statement, running
into 20 paragraphs, recording each step and explaining his
decision to dissolve the Lok Sabha.
After the 1998 general election, Atal Bihari Vajpayee staked claim
to form the new government. The BJP had emerged as the single
largest party and led a pre-election coalition that had a majority
in the House. The President demanded proof in the form of letters
of support. They were duly furnished. On March 15, 1998,
Rashtrapati Bhavan issued a detailed communiqué explaining the
President's decision to appoint Vajpayee as Prime Minister,
subject to his securing a vote of confidence on the floor of the
House within 10 days of his being sworn in.
This government was defeated on a motion of confidence that was
put to vote in the Lok Sabha on April 17, 1999. The President was
criticised for insisting on the vote, but his action was
justified. The NDA government had come to power on the strength of
a letter of support from, among others, AIADMK leader J
Jayalalithaa. She later wrote to the President withdrawing her
support. The government had manifestly lost a majority. President
Narayanan's decision was vindicated in the Lok Sabha even though
the government was defeated by a single vote.
Sonia Gandhi, leader of the Congress (I), claimed a majority on
April 21 but admitted her failure four days later. On April 26,
the President dissolved the Lok Sabha. Once again, a detailed
communiqué from Rashtrapati Bhavan set out each step in the
process of consultation, spread over a week. In the general
elections held later that year, the NDA returned to power.
President Narayanan twice declined to act on advice to impose
President's rule and asked the council of ministers to reconsider
it. He first did so on October 22, 1997, when the United Front
government advised the imposition of President's rule in Uttar
Pradesh. Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav, who was also
Union defence minister, was most upset and the BJP supported him.
Later, on September 25, 1998, the President declined the NDA
government's advice to impose President's rule in Bihar, causing
the BJP much heartburn.
However, he accepted similar advice on February 12, 1999, in the
aftermath of the Dalit massacre in Bihar on January 25 and
February 10-11, 1999. But the Rajya Sabha refused to ratify the
Proclamation and the ousted Rabri Devi government was reinstalled
in less than a month, to every one's embarrassment.
The President's expressions of anguish and pain in January, 1999,
on the murder of missionary Graham Staines and his two sons and,
last March, on the carnage in Gujarat did not endear him to the
It is only fair to mention that President Narayanan has not been
altogether free from blame. He took interest in appointments to
posts in the judiciary and government which was excessive and, in
at least in two cases -- concerning his daughter's appointment as
ambassador to Sweden and his secretary Gopal Krishna Gandhi's
appointment as high commissioner to Sri Lanka -- improper. On
March 21, 2000, he delivered a controversial speech at the banquet
in honour of then US president Bill Clinton, which departed from
the government's line. This, too, was improper. However, his
achievements overshadow his lapses.
The Presidency: A Special
The 11th President of
India: Complete Coverage