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President’s Election | Of Presidents who left a mark, and those who did not

The names that immediately come to our mind include APJ Abdul Kalam, KR Narayanan, Pranab Mukherjee, R Venakataraman, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, and even India's first President Rajendra Prasad 

June 23, 2022 / 03:05 PM IST
President Ram Nath Kovind performs yoga at the Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi (File Image: Twitter/@rashtrapatibhvn)

President Ram Nath Kovind performs yoga at the Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi (File Image: Twitter/@rashtrapatibhvn)


As MPs and MLAs vote to choose the 15th President of India on July 18, it's time to recall our Presidents who left a deep impact on their tenure, and those who did not.

Among the names that immediately come to our mind include APJ Abdul Kalam, KR Narayanan, Pranab Mukherjee, R Venakataraman, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, and even India's first President Rajendra Prasad, who was the only one to serve two terms in office.

Prasad, as the first President, from 1950 to 1962, stood out as a strong leader with a mind of his own. He differed with India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru on many issues, but stayed within the limitations of his office.

Radhakrishnan, who was in office from 1962 to 1967, added dignity to his office with his learning and scholarship, but managed to get Nehru to axe then Defence Minister VK Krishna Menon after the debacle in the India-China war of 1962.

In popular terms, among the Presidents, Kalam, who served from 2002 to 2007, earned the sobriquet of being ‘the people's President’. He endeared himself to the people — with his simple lifestyle, and to children and youth, in particular, by generating inspiring ideas for the next generation for transforming India.

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Other presidents who came into prominence were largely on account of their role in inviting the leader of the party to form the government. Among them, KR Narayanan, who was the first Dalit President (1997 to 2002), laid some ground rules for the President to be personally satisfied on the numbers enjoyed by the leader of the political party who is staking claiming to form the government.

Narayanan set a new precedent concerning the appointment of a Prime Minister if no party or a pre-election coalition had a majority. He insisted that a person could be appointed Prime Minister only if they were able to convince the President (through letters of support from allied parties) of their ability to secure the confidence of the Lok Sabha.

In doing so, Narayanan differed from his predecessors who were faced with the task of appointing a Prime Minister from a hung Parliament. They included R Venkataraman (1987 to 1992) and Shankar Dayal Sharma (1992-1997). Sharma earned criticism for inviting Atal Bihari Vajpayee to form the government, which lasted only 13 days in 1996.

Both Venkataraman and Sharma followed the practice of inviting the leader of the single-largest party or pre-election coalition to form the government — without finding out for themselves whether they actually had numbers to back up their claim.

Venakataraman, who had the distinction of working with four Prime Ministers (Rajiv Gandhi, VP Singh, Chandra Shekhar and PV Narasimha Rao) felt that the coalition era required a flexible approach. The Congress did not have the numbers, but emerged the single-largest party. He was seen as facilitating the Congress because he was often seen advising Gandhi in the statecraft.

Narayanan also did not readily accept the recommendation from the Union Cabinet to impose President's Rule in a state, in accordance with Article 356. He returned such recommendations for reconsideration — one from the IK Gujral government, seeking to dismiss the Kalyan Singh government in Uttar Pradesh in 1997, and the other from the Vajpayee government in 1998, seeking to dismiss the Rabri Devi government in Bihar. Later, when the Vajpayee government insisted on the matter a few months later, Narayanan had to accept the same and President's Rule was imposed in Bihar in February, 1999.

Narayanan was also outspoken in expressing outrage when Australian missionary and social worker Graham Staines and his two minor sons were burned alive in Odisha. Similarly, he did not mince words when the Gujarat riots took place in 2002, describing it as a grave crisis of the society and the nation.

Venkataraman dismissed the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) government in Tamil Nadu in 1991 for alleged links with the Sri Lanka-based terrorist organisation the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) on the advice of the Chandra Shekhar government even without receiving a report from Governor SS Barnala because he was convinced on the issue.

A politician with vast experience, Pranab Mukherjee (2012 to 2017) brought a distinct working style to the Rashtrapati Bhavan, dealing with two Prime Ministers —Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi. Though his political views were sharply different from that of Modi’s, Mukherjee managed to achieve a great degree of rapport with him, respecting his huge mandate of 2014.

As Modi sought his guidance on many issues, Mukherjee did not hesitate to share his wisdom and experience. Though he had doubts over the impact of demonetisation, he saw merits in Modi's action in this regard. He, however, did not hesitate to send back Gujarat's anti-terrorism Bill with queries, being the third President to do so.

Mukherjee became the first President to visit an RSS event in Nagpur in June 2018 — a move that earned him a lot of criticism as well as praise. But he did not mince words in conveying at the event that the soul of India is pluralism, tolerance, and inclusion. In his speech, he had also warned that any attempt to define India through “religion, hatred, dogmas and intolerance” will dilute our existence and said public discourses must be freed of all forms of violence.

As for the Presidents who did not make a mark, Pratibha Patil, who was in office between 2007 and 2012, got the distinction of being the first woman President. But Patil's tenure saw reports about her taking family and friends on official trips abroad, and being forced to send back more than 155 gifts back to the Rashtrapati Bhavan after her retirement.

Among those who earned a negative mark were Giani Zail Singh (1982 to 1987), a once staunch loyalist of Indira Gandhi who had several run-in with then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, returning the Indian Post Office (Amendment) Bill passed by Parliament, and Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed (1974 to 1977) who earned notoriety for signing on dotted lines for the imposition of the Emergency.

 
Shekhar Iyer is former senior associate editor of Hindustan Times and political editor of Deccan Herald. Views are personal.
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