Deccan Chronicle

Book Review | How a family retainer' reinvented himself to be an iconic President

Deccan Chronicle.| Pranay Sharma

Published on: April 8, 2023 | Updated on: April 8, 2023
Cover photo of 'The Indian President: An Insider's Account of the Zail Singh Years' by K.C. Singh. (Photo by arrangement)

Cover photo of 'The Indian President: An Insider's Account of the Zail Singh Years' by K.C. Singh. (Photo by arrangement)

Among the several books written on Indian Presidents, few have explored the President’s role in the government, especially his role with a powerful and popular Prime Minister.

The President appoints the Prime Minister. But most Presidents are in turn carefully chosen by the Prime Minister and the ruling party and few prefer to rock the boat once they are in office.

As the first citizen of the country, the head of state and the supreme commander of the armed forces, the President wields immense power. How he uses that power under which occasion remains a big question.

K.C. Singh, a former diplomat and now a columnist, deals with these questions in his book The Indian President: An Insider’s Account of the Zail Singh Years.

While examining the role of the President, which ones intervened to safeguard the Constitution and which ones didn’t, the book also explores how the Indian system deals with a powerful and popular Prime Minister and how to restrain him or her.

Studies show that in the 21st century, more than military coups, the gradual capture or neutralisation of independent institutions that act as referees in a functioning liberal democracy by popular leaders, leads to its degradation.

The Pew Research Centre finds that nearly 50 per cent of Indians favour a strong leader or military rule. The Freedom House survey labels only 83 out of 210 nations surveyed as "free", and downgrades India to "partly free".

Of the 15 Presidents K.C. Singh mentions in his book, he identifies only four — Rajendra Prasad, S. Radhakrishnan, K.R. Narayanan and Zail Singh — as those Presidents who intervened when they thought the Constitution was being violated. The others either did not face any such crisis or decided to accept the path of least resistance to go along with the government’s decision.

"The fact that only four out 15 Presidents stand out is a reflection of our political system," says Singh.

He divides the book in two parts — the first deals with the President and his role in India, while the second deals with the Zail Singh years: the major challenges he faced in his tenure and his strained relations with Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, whom he had sworn in on October 31, 1984.

The drafters of the Indian Constitution created a unitary constitutional system "dressed up as a federal structure". What were then the checks envisaged to prevent its hijacking by a powerful Prime Minister, asks Singh.

Unlike the United States, there is no separation of powers between the executive and the legislative branches. In the Indian parliamentary system, they are intertwined.

The ruling party’s parliamentary board is also too weak to stand up to a powerful Prime Minister.

Historically, in all democracies, the more popular an elected head of government or state is, the less likely that the judiciary will try restraining him.

The President of India, unlike his American counterpart, is not an executive President. In the Indian political system, that power lies with the Prime Minister and his ruling party that is elected by the people.

But unlike the Prime Minister, who has only to abide by the Constitution, the Indian President is the defender of the Constitution.

However, the President has to go by the advice of the Prime Minister and the cabinet. He might question the advice given to him by the government and return a bill to the Cabinet for reconsideration. But once it is returned, he has to sign it.

So, if the President acts mainly as a rubber stamp of the government, how does he follow his constitutional duty and become the defender of the Constitution if a powerful Prime Minister violates it?

Through his lucid style and interesting anecdotes, Singh narrates episodes when some Presidents intervened, while there are others who showed reticence to do so.

The second part of the book is about Zail Singh’s tenure in Rashtrapati Bhavan. It narrates how he went against Indira Gandhi to oppose N.T. Rama Rao government’s dismissal in Andhra Pradesh in 1983.

It also shows President Singh’s political savviness in holding on to The Indian Post Office (Amendment) Bill, 1986, that would have allowed the government to listen to the conversations of journalists, to create an inordinate delay that finally led to it being shelved.

His tension and humiliation at the hands of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who came to power with a massive mandate, is well known and widely written about. Singh, who was the deputy secretary to the President (1983-87) and a trusted aide, however, fills the gaps to many of those stories by giving the reader an insider’s version.

The fact that the President, despite mounting pressure, did not sack the elected Prime Minister when his popularity started waning in the aftermath of the Bofors scandal, shows his respect for democratic principles. More important, his political instinct. For he may have correctly assessed that dismissing the Prime Minister could have been challenged in the Supreme Court, which could have reinstated him and made him even more powerful and popular.

The biggest challenges that Zail Singh faced, however, were during the Army operation in the Golden Temple, and some months later, the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards and the anti-Sikh pogrom in Delhi and other parts of the country. Singh tries to give an objective analysis of the reason why the Sikh President did not resign on either occasion. Perhaps he remained a loyal Congressman and overcame his personal feelings and not precipitate the crisis and plunge the country into further trouble.

But one fails to understand what prevented Zail Singh from tendering an apology, if not after the Army action in June 1984 in Amritsar, then at least to the families of the victims of the anti-Sikh riots?

Through his engaging and analytical narration, K.C. Singh has given readers a highly readable account of how someone considered a family retainer grew into his job as India’s President, and despite the contempt directed at him succeeded in restoring the honour of the President’s office.

This book should find a place in the shelves of not only those interested in contemporary political history but also commentators to see if there is a parallel in the past that can come back to haunt the present.

The Indian President: An Insider’s Account of the Zail Singh Years

By K.C. Singh

HarperCollins India

pp. 275, Rs.699

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