Dr Rajendra Prasad and Jawaharlal Nehru
Our first Prime Minister and our first President clashed in the oldest form of political conflict: a turf war for greater power. Letters between the two reveal that while Dr Rajendra Prasad wanted to increase the powers of the President, Nehru countered that the framers of the Constitution had opted for the parliamentary system and not a presidential system of government. However, author Rasheed Kidwai points out that it would be wrong to say the two did not get along, for while Nehru went on his grand European tour, it was Dr Prasad who suggested his name for the Bharat Ratna, contrary to the perception that it was Nehru’s gift to himself. Constitutional expert Subhash Kashyap says the differences between the two were academic rather than political.
Giani Zail Singh and the Gandhis
It is ironic that Zail Singh had an almost obsequious relationship with Indira Gandhi, while his rapport with her son was highly acrimonious. One possible reason is that he did not approve of Rajiv’s handling of the anti-Sikh riots that broke out after Indira’s assassination. Senior journalist Vir Sanghvi points out that Zail Singh was upset because Rajiv kept him away from the negotiations with the Akali Dal and did not bother to hide his contempt for Zail Singh. Kashyap agrees, pointing out that while Indira called on Zail Singh to brief him regularly, Rajiv never did so.
The Rubber-Stamp presidents
Two Presidents spring to mind in this sense: Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed and, more recently, Pratibha Patil. Everyone knows about the midnight signing of the Emergency that took place at Rashtrapati Bhawan, but WikiLeaks cables on the Emergency reveal two interesting cases when Ahmed said no to Indira Gandhi. A US cable dated 6 August 1976 suggested that Indira had wanted Ahmed to replace Vice President B.D. Jatti for not praising the Emergency, but he refused. Another one reveals that Sanjay Gandhi had wanted the then President to give a statement for the first issue of his new magazine Surya, which Ahmed refused to do, saying it was “unusual and inappropriate”.
As for Pratibha Patil, her candidacy over more notable names such as current President Pranab Mukherjee (who even in 2007 had the clout and support to make it to Rashtrapati Bhawan had the Congress backed him) came in for criticism. As Kashyap points out, she was lucky there were no major controversies during her tenure, for she was a “simple lady”. And he is being kind.
Abdul Kalam and Atal Behari Vajpayee
Kalam was not anyone’s first choice for President in 2002, but he ended up being everyone’s choice. The BJP first opted for then-Maharashtra Governor P.C. Alexander, the strategy being to put a Christian in high office to trump Sonia Gandhi in case she had Prime Ministerial ambitions in 2004. The Congress as well as NDA ally TDP, preferred Vice President Krishna Kant. To break the logjam, Vajpayee zeroed in on A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, a man who rose above party politics. It was not too difficult to convince Mulayam Singh Yadav to propose Kalam’s name, thereby breaking the SP off from the Left bloc. The Congress and TDP soon followed.