Rashtrapati Bhavan, which straddles 3,000 acres of woodlands, manicured lawns and laid out gardens on Raisina Hill in Lutyens’s Delhi, was neither designed nor built for the notional head of the Sovereign Socialist Secular Democratic Republic of India (thankfully we have been spared the acronym SSSDRI). It was meant to be the residence of the Viceroy, the representative of the Emperor on whose empire the sun never set. To pretend otherwise would be self-deceiving.
History, however, has a nasty habit of taking unforeseen twists and turns. The dazzling pomp and pageantry that marked the durbar in Delhi a hundred years ago would not have offered the smallest clue that it was also the last display of imperial grandeur. Between 1911 and 1947, Great Britain was reduced to Little England; the sun had set on the empire long before the Union Jack was replaced by the Tricolour.
Free India was saddled with the trappings of British power, among them the majestic Viceroy’s House. Mahatma Gandhi’s suggestion that it be converted into a public hospital was politely but firmly waved aside; it became the residence of the Governor-General, and after the birth of the Republic, the home of the President.
Jawaharlal Nehru, having ensconced himself at Teen Murti Bhavan, would have settled for nothing less than a make-believe Buckingham Palace for the President, a post he envisaged as replicating that of the British monarch. Thus was India’s constitutional identity shaped -- not by the letter of the Constitution but by the spirit of those who craved for all things English. Ironically, India’s first President, Babu Rajendra Prasad, bore little resemblance with Nehru’s imagined Head of State. He was deeply religious, socially conservative and politically poles apart from his Prime Minister. For example, Nehru thought reforming Hindu Law was progressive; Prasad found the thought abhorrent.
Since then, relations between the President and the Prime Minister have swung between extremes: From the Rashtrapati subordinating his office to that of the Pradhan Mantri to indulging in palace intrigue yet lacking the courage for plotting the proverbial night of long knives. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Zakir Hussain perceived themselves as lofty intellectuals, too high for low politics. VV Giri, on the other hand, willingly conspired with Mrs Indira Gandhi.
Then, of course, there was Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed. Such was his gratitude that he blindly signed the proclamation of Emergency. Abu Abraham has preserved that moment of darkness at noon with his famous cartoon showing Ahmed signing the proclamation while having his bath and telling the bearer: “If there are any more Ordinances, just ask them to wait.” But not all have been steadfastly grateful for being given a five-year tenancy of Rashtrapati Bhavan and the pleasure of postprandial strolls in its magnificent Mughal Garden. “If my leader had said I should pick up a broom and be a sweeper, I would have done that. She chose me to be President,” Giani Zail Singh had said by way of public declaration of undying loyalty to Mrs Gandhi — indeed, the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty — upon his elevation as President in 1982.
Such touching sincerity was never reciprocated. Mrs Gandhi chose to keep him in the dark when she decided to launch Operation Bluestar although he was the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces and the task of raiding the Golden Temple to rid it of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and his men was given to the Army. Zail Singh could have resigned, but he stayed put in office. Nor did he hesitate to instal Rajiv Gandhi as Prime Minister after Mrs Gandhi’s assassination in 1984.
If Mrs Gandhi ignored him, her son held him in contempt. A furious Zail Singh struck back, conspiring with Rajiv Gandhi’s detractors, refusing to sign the Postal Bill (perhaps the only morally right decision he had ever taken) and reportedly contemplating dismissing the Prime Minister on account of corruption charges that followed l’affaire Bofors. In the event, he died a tragic death, a heartbroken man. Among other notable Presidents, KR Narayanan had to be kept on a leash for constantly plotting against the NDA when it was in power, while APJ Abdul Kalam charmed his way into the hearts of millions of Indians and played by the book. Pratibha Patil will be remembered for reasons that are entirely unsavoury.
As her tenure draws to a close, both the Government and the Opposition should ponder over how to restore the dignity of the President’s office. A welcome option would be a candidate selected by consensus whose credentials as the keeper of the Constitution are impeccable. Frankly, neither needs to look far for such a President.
— The writer is a journalist, political analyst and activist