The story of how V.V. Giri became President.

While the date of notification for the forthcoming Presidential election is just about five weeks away, the media has been generally maintaining a cautious silence. Even the political activities in the concerned quarters appear to be at a low key, so far. The obvious reason is the very comfortable position the ruling party is placed in, leaving no chance for any other candidate. Out of the 14 elections held so far for the Presidency, with the exception of the elections to the fourth and the eleventh Presidency, others have been by and large smooth.
It is a weak ruling party at the Centre with insufficient numbers to back up from the states, which usually sets up hectic political parleys and intrigue. Sometimes the inner dynamics of a ruling party, under trying circumstances, also lead to complex situations and surprises. It is in this context that one Presidential election stands out which generated enough heat to singe quite a few political personalities of the day.
The sudden demise of Dr Zakir Hussain, the third President of India, in May 1969, barely two years into his Presidency, led to some unprecedented situations which not only tested the Constitution but were also responsible for setting in motion a chain of events which left a deep imprint on the politics of the country, whose impact was felt for decades. Vice President V.V. Giri had been sworn in as the President of India in the vacancy left by Dr Zakir Hussain, and this also meant that there was no Vice President for the country. The Constitution does not mention the words acting President, but V.V. Giri was usually referred to as the “Acting President”.
Though President Giri had been a veteran Congressman himself, it became clear during the run-up to the nominations that his name was not under consideration. At the meeting of the Congress Parliamentary Board in Bangalore, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had proposed the name of Jagjivan Ram for the highest office. This was not acceptable to the party president Nijalingapa, who along with Kamraj and others proposed the name of N. Sanjeeva Reddy. Ultimately, Indira Gandhi’s candidate failed to secure the nomination. Irked by this defeat, on the one hand hectic political activities began on a war footing, while on the other the Prime Minister went public with her social reforms agenda. This resulted in the ordinance on the nationalisation of banks being passed as also the finance portfolio being taken away from the Deputy Prime Minister Morarji Desai. Those days the nationalisation of banks was considered to be a very big revolutionary step. In the meantime, V.V. Giri also firmed up his mind to contest the Presidential election as an independent candidate. In fact, the ordinance on bank nationalisation was approved by him just a day before his resignation. An unprecedented situation had arisen as both the offices of the President and the Vice President were going to fall vacant. Also, there was the question of whether V.V. Giri should resign from the office of the President, the Vice President, or both. Ultimately, he resigned from both the offices and for the first time in history, the Chief Justice of India, M. Hidayatullah was sworn in as the President.
The election campaign was run in a surcharged atmosphere. The Opposition parties had also fielded a common candidate in C.D. Deshmukh, a very respected figure and a former finance minister in Nehru’s cabinet. Days before the polling, in behind the scene activities, the Prime Minister’s camp gave a call for vote by conscience as no whip had been issued. This was unprecedented. In a nail-biting finish, V.V. Giri won as an independent candidate. He was able to defeat the official Congress candidate, on the basis of second preference votes transferred from C.D. Deshmukh. This was sensational indeed and eventually led to the split in the Congress party, further strengthening the position of Indira Gandhi.
The last act in this sensational affair was a petition filed in the Supreme Court after V.V. Giri had been sworn in. The petition alleged use of corrupt practices during the campaign by V.V. Giri in making personal attacks on Sanjeeva Reddy and was admitted for hearing. V.V. Giri had the option of being examined in Rashtrapati Bhawan, but chose to defend himself in the Supreme Court. This was also the first time that the President of India had appeared in a court as a defendant where special seating arrangement had to be made for him. The petition was ultimately dismissed but for a long time the suspense remained alive.
The position of the Vice President, which had been lying vacant, was finally filled up as the retiring CJI Hidayatullah was elected unanimously to the high office. Later, he had the opportunity to once again become the acting President of India when the incumbent Giani Zail Singh had gone abroad for his medical treatment.
Almost 30 years later, there was yet another Presidential campaign which was not so sensational but had enough of suspense, drama and intrigue.
The events got dramatized by at least two flip flops and some embarrassment but ultimately it was A.P.J. Abdul Kalam all the way. He was a non-political person, had impeccable credentials and all the political parties, except the leftists felt that they had no choice but to support him. President Kalam had won by a record margin.
Earlier, at one stage, Vice President Krishan Kant appeared to be the frontrunner. Perhaps what went against him was that he was a United Front candidate at the time of his election for Vice Presidency when I.K. Gujral happened to be the Prime Minister. This part of the drama ended in a tragedy as just a couple of days after the swearing in of President Kalam, Vice President Krishan Kant succumbed to a massive heart attack. He had made his unhappiness known all around him at the unfavourable turn of events after an initial “promise”.
The next part of the drama takes us to Mumbai, where another hopeful, the incumbent Governor of Maharashtra, P.C Alexander was extremely confident on the basis of an “assurance”. This resulted in his resignation from the exalted position, which he had been occupying, and making a sudden dash to Delhi, but as they say, there is many a slip between the cup and the lip. On reaching Delhi he found that overnight the tables had been turned on him and the given “assurance” had simply vanished. A bitter P.C. Alexander was left high and dry with no choice except to vent his ire explicitly through an autobiography.