July 29, 2002


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T V R Shenoy

Did the BJP sabotage Krishan Kant's chances of being President?

Men have died from time to time,' Shakespeare wrote, 'and worms have eaten them, but not for love.' Well, if not for love, have any died for love of office? Judging by some of the emotional tripe I am reading today it seems that is exactly why Vice-President Krishan Kant is no longer with us today. In the same irrational vein, sections of the media are reporting that the lawbooks are silent in the event of a vacancy in the vice-presidency. So, where do I start?

Let me begin by asking just why so many people are so eager to paint the late vice-president as a power-hungry man -- so much so that he died a frustrated man because he failed to make it to Rashtrapati Bhavan. I am sure there are many men who would like a term of office -- or even a second term -- in Lutyens's magnificent palace, but I cannot think of any politician who would lie down and die because he did not get the job! Yet that is precisely what some would have us believe...

Let me add that Krishan Kant was an intelligent man, somebody smart enough to realise that his chances of making it to the top job in the land were vanishingly slim. As far as I can tell, the only person who was remotely enthusiastic about giving him the job was Chandrababu Naidu. Nobody else, whether on the Treasury benches or in the Opposition, seemed eager about Kant.

Did the National Democratic Alliance generally, and the Bharatiya Janata Party specifically, sabotage Krishan Kant's chances? For those with conveniently short memories, I urge them to go back and check what happened five years ago. In 1997, K R Narayanan was raised to Rashtrapati Bhavan. This led to an election for vice-president. Krishan Kant was backed by the Congress, by his old friend I K Gujral, and several others. He was not supported by the BJP and its allies, who put up the Akali leader Surjit Singh Barnala. In other words, there is a history of opposition to Krishan Kant.

How about the Congress and the Left Front? Their candidate for the Presidency was K R Narayanan. Was there any point when they seriously discussed, leave alone proposed, Krishan Kant? The late vice-president's name may have come up from time to time, but was he ever taken seriously?

To set the record straight, there is no 'tradition' of a vice-president automatically climbing that last step as some would have us believe. In fact, the first instance of a sitting vice-president being denied the nomination came 33 years ago.

In 1969 President Zakir Husain died. The vice-;president was V V Giri. The then prime minister was Indira Gandhi, and her choice was Babu Jagjivan Ram. The Congress Syndicate, however, opted for Neelam Sanjiva Reddy. Mrs Gandhi bowed to the decision of the majority. If you check the archives, you will find her signature on Sanjiva Reddy's nomination papers. Giri decided he wanted to be President, and won support from various Opposition parties. He resigned as vice-president so as to campaign better. (It would, of course, have been unethical to continue had he lost.)

At this, Mrs Gandhi and her 'Kitchen Cabinet' saw a wonderful opportunity to break the power of the 'Syndicate' once and for all. Someone -- I think it was C. Subramaniam -- floated the idea of a 'conscience vote' and Indira Gandhi quickly took up the refrain. The result was the split in the Congress. Giri was elected with the support of most of the Opposition but less than half of the Congress.

Since then, there have been other Vice-Presidents who were not allowed to rise higher -- B D Jatti and M Hidayatullah, for instance. So much for all that tradition!

What of the supposed confusion in the Constitution over a vacancy in the vice-presidency? Actually, that question too was settled by Indira Gandhi in 1969. There was a double vacancy at the time. President Husain was dead, and Acting President Giri (the vice-president) had resigned. Parliament stepped quickly into the breach; an Act stipulated that the senior Justice in the Supreme Court would act as vice-president in the event of a vacancy. (And if need be as Acting President.) That is how Justice Hidayatullah became the Acting President.

Indira Gandhi was in the middle of her Leftist phase at the time. So, her Bank Nationalisation Ordinance was signed by V V Giri in his capacity as Acting President. But when it became an Act of Parliament the President's assent bore the signature of M Hidayatullah. In other words, the law on succession is quite clear.

I am not sure why anyone is even bothering to bring up the issue. Krishan Kant was at the end of his term, with less than a month to go as vice-president. His only real task, that of chairing the Rajya Sabha, can be done just as easily by the Deputy Chairman (now Najma Heptullah) until a new vice-president is elected.

When you think about it, Krishan Kant had a pretty good life. He had two terms in the Rajya Sabha, seven years or so as a Governor, and five years as vice-president. In other words, he enjoyed a series of sinecures for a quarter of a century, about a third of his life. Does anyone believe that he died unfulfilled because he could not add 'President of India' to his resume?

Krishan Kant's 'friends' want us to believe just that. In the same breath they would have us believe that he was dedicated to 'selfless' politics. One or the other, please, but not both!

Death of the Vice-President

T V R Shenoy

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