Size doesn’t matter. Not on Raisina Hill. Or else, the might of the President of India would have towered over the Prime Minister in the architecture of power. The Rashtrapati’s realm is 330 acres of verdant spaces and manicured lawns, with five acres housing only the homes and offices on the Presidential Estate. Its specs are magnificent: 11.5 miles of corridors, 340 rooms of which 63 are living rooms, 227 columns, 35 loggias and 37 fountains.
In contrast, the Prime Minister works out of a corner room measuring less than 500 square feet in South Block, just a few hundred metres away from Lutyens’ imperial vision. His official residential complex consists of five bungalows on Race Course Road, spread over just 20 acres. All the bungalows put together have less than 50 rooms.
Democracy presupposes the cyclical nature of power even as it rationalises the inherent contradictions. Hence, irrespective of real estate standards, the Prime Minister, who occupies less geographical area than the President, dictates the choice of the President who in turn appoints the Prime Minister. Trust is directly proportionate to power; while the ruling party candidate has won every Presidential election till date, 10 of the 13 previous incumbents have either been direct nominees of Prime Ministers or enjoyed their total support. Since such precedence dictates the President, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will decide who will be the Rashtrapati Bhavan’s next occupant.
Since the Constitution bequeaths absolute power on the Prime Minister and the ruling party, debate, dialogue or discussion on the names for India’s 14th President is just a formality. Last week, the BJP began the process of formally consulting opposition parties to build a consensus in favour of its candidate—though in keeping with Modi’s penchant for mystery, the name would be proposed only later. Predictably, they emphasised that the nominee should “uphold both the letter and spirit of the Indian Constitution”, which provides for a secular and socialist Republic.
Socialism has been given a quiet burial. And in reality, a conflict between the letter and the spirit is unavoidable in such matters. The law embodies wisdom and clarity; the spirit varies according to individual perceptions. The spirit, according to the Opposition, is vastly different from Modi’s concept. Since a democratic government is of the people, by the people and for the people, its Prime Ministers and not Presidents who have asserted that the spirit of the Constitution is translated as ‘The Will of the Prime Minister Shall Prevail’.
The inflexible contours of current political alignments leave little scope for a consensus candidate for president. History shows 12 of the 13 battles for the presidency since 1952 were contests between the government and the Opposition. The only exception was Neelam Sanjiva Reddy, the Janata Party candidate who was elected unopposed in 1977. His route had its twists and turns, which reflected the growing clout of the Prime Minister in presidential matters. In 1969, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi opposed the official Congress candidate because she felt that an unsympathetic face in Rashtrapati Bhavan will pose roadblocks to her agenda.
She selected V V Giri to oppose Reddy, who was a proxy for the Morarji Desai-led Syndicate. Reddy lost. But five years later when Morarji became PM, he got sweet revenge by anointing Reddy as president. From 1969 onwards, the power of Prime Ministers to influence the choice of the head of state has only expanded. After Giri retired in 1974, Indira made a non-entity named Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed the President.
He has gone down in history as a caricatured sycophant who signed the proclamation of the infamous Emergency without demur. In 1982, she chose staunch loyalist Giani Zail Singh for the job. Since then, the qualifications of a presidential candidate have undergone significant changes. From being a statesman or a scholar like Dr Rajendra Prasad, Dr S Radhakrishnan and Dr Zakir Husain, the primary eligibility for the post today is loyalty first to the Prime Minister or the party president; to the Constitution later. P V Narasimha Rao chose Dr Shankar Dayal Sharma because of their mutual proximity over decades.
Sonia Gandhi picked political parvenu Pratibha Patil for being a family loyalist. Only Atal Bihari Vajpayee reverted to the extinct practice of installing a reputed personality like Dr APJ Abdul Kalam in Raisina Hill. His persuasive powers and democratic credentials enabled him to cajole most Opposition parties to support Kalam. Pranab Mukherjee enjoyed the support of not only Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, but also of a multitude of leaders across parties.
Ironically, the fear of Prime Ministers of an independent-minded or a biased president obstructing their agenda has shrunk the stature of the Indian presidency. History is replete with conflicts between both heads over the interpretation of the Constitution. While Presidents have insisted on total adherence to the letter of the Constitution, Prime Ministers have laid emphasis on its spirit.
• Jawaharlal Nehru was upset when Rajendra Prasad gave his consent to the Hindu Code Bill and for attending the inaugural function of the Somnath temple, though Nehru himself visited Deoband.
• In 1987, when Rajiv Gandhi was the Prime Minister, President Giani Zail Singh returned the Post Office Bill, 1987, passed by the Parliament, because it allowed the government to intercept all postal communications. (Thankfully, no Internet then).
• In 1991, President R Venkataraman withheld the MPs Salary Bill, passed by Lok Sabha, because it did not have his prior recommendation.
• K R Narayanan refused to accept the advice of the BJP government in 1998 to dismiss the Uttar Pradesh government.
• APJ Abdul Kalam used his veto in 2006 to return Office of Profit Bill (Prevention of Disqualification Act, 1959).
A fiercely independent leader like Narendra Modi with his singular vision is aware of the puddles and pitfalls on his road to 2019. He is unlikely to take risks in the smooth implementation of his mission. He has the numbers and the political clout to decide who will crest the hill upon which stands the sandstone edifice, which just symbolises the might of the Indian presidency. It will be one who places a premium on the spirit of the Constitution and not the letter. In spirit, a directly elected leader will have his say in all matters of governance. The letter, however, belongs in the Thesaurus of interpretations in a democracy governed by conventions and not innovations.
Follow him on Twitter @PrabhuChawla