A brief history of the Indian presidency
The honour accorded to Pranab Mukherjee following his death at the age of 84 on Monday is a whole lot more than a showering of respect on an individual. It is, in broad measure, symbolic of the high degree of esteem in which Indians have generally held the presidency of their country.
In Pranab Mukherjee, such esteem was but natural, given the statesman-like manner in which he served at Rashtrapati Bhavan for five years. And in the three years after his departure from office, Mukherjee demonstrated the kind of suavity that, in a parliamentary form of government citizens, expect from one who has served as president.
The history of the Indian presidency is essentially a charming tale of the accomplished individuals who have personified it since the departure of the British colonial power in August 1947. Rajendra Prasad was a happy occupant of the office, contributing to a deepening of the Indian political system and so assisting Jawaharlal Nehru in consolidating the structure of the state.
In the philosopher Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, a figure revered worldwide and one who, apart from teaching, served with distinction as Indian ambassador in Moscow in Stalinist times, Indians had a president who symbolized the ancient wisdom of their country. Radhakrishnan did not hold himself back from proffering advice to the prime minister, advice which Nehru took seriously.
The man makes the office
In statecraft, the office makes the man. Sometimes of course, it is the man who makes the office or who does not measure up to the demands of the office. The respect with which Indians have accorded farewell to Pranab Mukherjee did not come to Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, for reasons that are not too far to spot. He went along with Indira Gandhi’s declaration of a state of emergency without so much as a demur.
Had he been an assertive president and able to comprehend the ramifications of the prime minister’s move in June 1975, India’s history would be different. But Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed failed to rise to the occasion. History has not quite remembered him.
If Ahmed was a departure from the traditions embodied by the presidency in India, Giani Zail Singh was not too far behind. In the moments following the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in October 1984, he did not do what he should have done in line with tradition: He could have asked Pranab Mukherjee, at the time the senior-most member of the cabinet, to take over as prime minister.
Inexplicably, President Zail Singh summoned the young Rajiv Gandhi from Kolkata, where he happened to be on a visit, to swear him in as the new prime minister. And yet, as developing events were to demonstrate soon enough, Singh and Gandhi came to a point where their relations soured.
For large numbers of Indians, Zail Singh’s place in history is little to be proud of. Men like him and Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, one could reasonably argue up to a point, were aberrations in Indian presidential history. The office of president proved overwhelming for them.
But, again, there were the others. Shankar Dayal Sharma, a man as suave as he was scholarly -- his education at Cambridge and Harvard deepened the substantive nature of his personality -- upheld the dignity of presidential office in the way that Prasad and Radhakrishnan did in their time.
And in Zakir Hussain, who was to die in office, India had a president whose tehzeebi background, credentials as an economist, as a scholar of Urdu and therefore as one to whom aesthetics mattered, added richness to the heights in which the presidency worked. Having served as vice chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University, he brought a refreshing academic flair to the presidency.
A quiet dignity worked in Verahagiri Venkata Giri, whose election to the presidency pitted Indira Gandhi against the Congress Syndicate, the club of old men, led by K Kamaraj, who in 1966 had thought that by seating Nehru’s daughter in power they would be the ones to wield real power in the country.
Giri was the weapon Indira exercised in her crusade to have the Syndicate off her back. She would not support Neelam Sanjiva Reddy, the Syndicate candidate.
The Congress split in two, but the prime minister saw to it that Giri was elected. And, yes, Reddy was to return to the centre of things eight years later, when Morarji Desai’s Janata Party rode to power in the country. Ironically, it was a respected Reddy who had the prerogative of swearing in Indira Gandhi as prime minister when the Congress stormed back to power in 1980.
Among the many Indian presidents who have earned a high place on the pedestal of history is APJ Abdul Kalam. His scientific background, indeed his reputation as the father of the Indian bomb, went up many notches when he brought a philosophical dignity into Rashtrapati Bhavan.
In a number of ways, his presidency was a reminder of the Radhakrishnan era. Kalam was a recipient of respect across the board. But not the same can be said about Pratibha Patil, the only woman to have occupied the presidency. Hers was an undistinguished term as head of state.
It was a distinguished former diplomat in KR Narayanan who made it to the presidency. Narayanan’s understanding of global realities brought into Rashtrapati Bhavan a different form of cosmopolitanism. And then there was Ramaswamy Venkataraman, an equally erudite individual to occupy the presidential residence. A scholar, like quite a few others before him, Venkataraman wrote a good number of books which reflect India’s political history in its many dimensions.
India’s presidents have by and large been individuals possessed of multi-dimensional talent and experience. They have been independence activists, lawyers, and politicians who have served as ministers and governors, philosophers, scientists, and diplomats.
Rashtrapati Bhavan is a tapestry of the multi-faceted grandeur of the office, distinguished in its lofty brilliance. India’s presidency is a powerful institution in a parliamentary democracy, one that its current occupant, Ram Nath Kovind, will be expected to uphold.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.