Few political leaders have had such a distinguished and long career—stretching almost five decades— in the country’s public life as former President Pranab Mukherjee. In his death on August 31 the nation lost a statesman who had, among his numerous accomplishments, a deep understanding of India’s strategic interests. He brought rich and comprehensive experience to the Presidency.
There can be little doubt that both Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi would have gained enormously from his views on the pressing issues confronting India. Conversations between Presidents and Prime Ministers are most privileged and have never been revealed by any holder of either office. In many cases these discussions may consist of a Prime Minister briefing the President on government’s policies and programmes and proposed legislations but there can be little doubt that, on occasion, the latter may respond through suggestions, encouragement or caution. This comes through in Modi’s tribute to Mukherjee on his passing away. He said “I was new to Delhi in 2014. From Day 1 was blessed to have the guidance, support and blessings of Shri Pranab Mukherjee. I will always cherish my interactions with him”.
India’s Presidents have come from diverse backgrounds. Many had a background in the public life of the country. The first President, Rajendra Prasad, was a veteran of the freedom struggle. He joined Gandhiji in the Champaran Satyagraha in 1917 and thereafter dedicated his life to the national cause. Among others most were politicians but there have been educationists, a scientist and a former diplomat as Presidents too. They deserve a special focus because they show that the highest office in the land is not for politicians alone.
Academic and philosopher Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan was Rajendra Prasad’s immediate successor. Behind the scenes his calm and sagacity helped the political class to address a turbulent period which witnessed the Chinese aggression of 1962 and the transitions of Jawaharlal Nehru’s death and Lal Bahadur Shastri’s untimely passing away. In Zakir Hussain, the third President, the country had an educationist of extraordinary eminence and nationalist sentiment who co-founded and the led the Jamia Millia Islamia for two decades. His death in office was a loss to the country. KR Narayanan who became the tenth President rose from humble beginnings. His talent was recognised by Nehru and he was inducted in the Indian Foreign Service in 1949. He had a distinguished diplomatic career and later came into public life. He gave a people’s touch to the Presidency when, breaking tradition, he queued up like any ordinary citizen to cast his vote in the elections. His life is a testimony to the potential of Indian democracy. Narayanan’s successor APJ Abdul Kalam, the father of India’s missile programme and a brilliant technologist provided great inspiration especially to the youth and gained great popularity which endured even after he demitted office.
The President is elected by a college which consists of elected members of Parliament and of legislative assemblies of states and of Delhi and Puducherry. The value of votes of MPs and MLAs is arrived at through a system which is reflective of India’s federalism. Broadly all MPs votes have the same value but the value of MLAs of different states varies and the total vote share of Parliament and of all state and relevant UT assemblies is roughly the same.
Normally, the ruling coalition at the centre is able to get its candidate elected though the opposition puts up its candidate too. There is an element of politicking involved. This was seen most dramatically in 1969 when the Presidential election following Zakir Hussain’s death became the basis for Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to break the then Congress Party. She asked her party members to go in for a conscience vote and supported VV Giri who stood as an independent. He won. The Congress party split beginning the era of Indira Gandhi’s domination over Indian politics and the party becoming a Nehru-Gandhi family fiefdom, a feature which continues till today. While Pranab Mukherjee was the official Congress and the UPA nominee, it is widely believed, that the Congress President and UPA head Sonia Gandhi did not really want him in the Presidency.
By now it is fully accepted that the Indian President is bound to follow the advice given to him by the cabinet though he can by convention ask the cabinet to reconsider the advice given to him. If it is reiterated, he has to observe it. He can also ask Parliament to reconsider proposed legislation but if that too is re-submitted for approval he has to give assent. In this India follows the practice of the British system though the constitution does not specifically state that the President must mandatorily follow the advice given to him. Indeed, Rajendra Prasad had raised the issue of Presidential powers in a lecture in November 1960 but the matter is well settled by now.
India has been fortunate that Presidents and Prime Ministers have always ensured that their working relationships have been smooth even when as in the case of Pranab Mukherjee, Narendra Modi’s party BJP had opposed him in the election. This tradition has ensured the success of the constitutional scheme and has ensured that there is only one power centre at the Centre. The only exception was the tense relationship that developed between Zail Singh and Rajiv Gandhi. Fortunately, it did not result in a constitutional crisis and has never recurred. This has much to do with the sagacity of Indian leaders like Pranab Mukherjee who have wisely guided the Indian ship of state through turbulent and calm waters alike.