A P J Abdul Kalam will face just one
challenge when he formally takes over as President today. This
challenge is rooted in the simple fact that the distinguished
defence scientist -- who is shifting from his single-room abode to
Rashtrapati Bhavan, arguably the largest and most opulent
residence of a head of state in the world -- is not a member of
the Indian political class. Some even say he is an 'outsider' who
will have to learn his new, exalted role on the job.
There is no doubt that, beginning with Dr Rajendra Prasad, the
first president and the only one so far to have two terms, all
heads of State of this country have been veteran politicians who
ascended to the presidency after long innings as ministers, chief
ministers, governors and so on. Dr S Radhakrishnan may not have
been a professional politician, but his experience in public
affairs was enormous, including a spectacular stint as ambassador
to the Soviet Union in the Stalin era. Dr Zakir Husain, though
primarily an educationist, was deeply involved in national
politics and the Freedom Struggle in close association with
Even the case of K R Narayanan, who is retiring after a glorious
innings, is vastly different from that of Kalam. The outgoing
President was a professional diplomat, not a politician. But his
political grooming began immediately after his retirement from the
Foreign Service and was prolonged and thorough. True, he was only
a minister of state in Rajiv Gandhi's government, while there were
leaders like P V Narasimha Rao, Pranab Mukherjee et al
who were much senior to him. However, his election as
vice-president in 1992 provided him not only with valuable
experience but, protocol-wise at least, seniority over the then
prime minister, Rao, to say nothing of lesser political figures.
Kalam, an outstanding technocrat rightly acclaimed as India's
'missile man,' is the first individual to pole-vault into
Rashtrapati Bhavan without going through the useful apprenticeship
of vice-presidency. This has created some anomalies. For instance,
Defence Minister George Fernandes, whom Kalam served, is still
defence minister. But that can't be helped. Kalam is now India's
First Citizen and head of State. All others must adjust to this
reality. Some civil servants senior to him are also holding
office, though the eminently deserved Bharat Ratna award gives
Kalam a position equivalent to former prime ministers.
Kalam's enormous popularity should prove useful in overcoming
these problems. It is not merely that the easily predictable
margin of his victory over Colonel Lakshmi Sehgal is overwhelming.
The respect he enjoys among the people at large, not just among
the educated middle class, is heartwarming. Whatever Sehgal's
supporters said about him was no more than electoral rhetoric that
nobody took seriously.
For his part, Kalam, a man of high calibre, sterling integrity and
Spartan habits, cannot do better than adopt Narayanan as his role
model. If he does that, he could easily convert his challenge into
an opportunity to do the country yeoman service by bringing about
a healthy balance and harmony between the head of the State and
the head of the government.
This requires some blunt explaining because this country, being
totally disinterested in history, does not know of the tug-of-war
that constantly takes place between its presidents and prime
ministers. This has happened even when presidents were derisively
dismissed as 'rubberstamps' and prime ministers like Indira Gandhi
or her son, Rajiv, understandably considered all-powerful.
If differences between Rajendra Prasad and Jawaharlal Nehru did
see the light of day, it was because Prasad was assertive about
his rights. He insisted he had certain discretionary powers,
independent of the advice of the council of ministers. The then
attorney-general M C Setalvad firmly told him there was no such
thing. Whereupon, in a public speech, Prasad demanded an
authoritative study of 'presidential powers,' but nobody paid any
heed to him.
Radhakrishnan foreclosed any possibility of a second term by
criticising the Nehru government for its 'credulity and
negligence' during the 1962 border war with China and by
developing ambitions to run the country through a 'presidential
council' for a 'temporary period.' He retaliated by delivering a
blistering farewell address that was instantly dubbed the 'parting
Even Giani Zail Singh, who had started by declaring that he would,
if so asked by 'Indiraji,' pick up the 'broom and sweep the
floor,' ended up by unleashing on Rajiv Gandhi a war of nerves so
ferocious as to shake the young prime minister.
On one occasion, even Shankar Dayal Sharma obstructed the
appointments of governors until some of his demands were met.
Why is the problem so seemingly irremediable when the Constitution
and the country clearly want the president to be a constitutional
head of state, like the British monarch, wielding no executive
power but having the right to 'caution,' 'advise' and 'encourage'
the prime minister? Even when the country raged against the
president's signature on the Emergency proclamation, the maximum
Parliament was prepared to concede was that the president could
return to the council of ministers any of its recommendations for
reconsideration only once. If the ministers reaffirmed their
decision, it was to be binding on the president.
And yet the irony is that when President Narayanan very properly
refused to sign the Vajpayee government's dubious proclamation for
the imposition of President's rule in Bihar, the Hindutva party
attacked him for being 'unduly activist.' Under similar
circumstances, Narayanan had also rejected the Gujral government's
recommendation for clamping President's rule in Uttar Pradesh. Inder Kumar
Gujral and his colleagues had the good sense to accept the
President's decision gracefully. Narayanan has also spoken out in
defence of Indian values, be it secularism or nonalignment,
sometimes to the chagrin of the ruling party.
The reality is that Narayanan has acted within the Constitution he
had sworn to 'protect and preserve.'
R Venkataraman had also acted as a 'copybook president,' to use
his own words. He propounded the theory that the President, in the
Indian scheme of things, was like the emergency light. It
automatically came on when the normal flow of power was broken and
went out after normal working was restored.
If Kalam follows these two predecessors, he cannot go wrong. In
one respect, Narayanan is a worthier example to follow. He speaks
rarely but, when he does, it is with due and deep thought and
without fear of favour. In the past, Kalam has shown a tendency to
speak out all too often or to speak in the manner of a pedagogue.
As President, he should control these proclivities.
One more point may be pertinent. Although no president after
Rajendra Prasad got a second term, I know of no president who
didn't want a second term or didn't try for it, covertly or
overtly. Kalam could earn tremendous kudos and set a fine
precedent for future presidents if he disavows any ambition to
have a second tenure at this new phase in his career that a
billion Indians look forward to.
The Presidency: A Special
The 11th President of
India: Complete Coverage