Politicking Began With India's Very First President
Courtesy of Photo Division, Ministry of Information and BroadcastingRajendra Prasad, the first president of India, ratifies the Constitution of India, Jan. 26, 1950.
Current events through the lens of history.
A few weeks ago, when the names of the candidates in India's presidential race were only just beginning to be chalked onto the tote board, I was speaking with Chintamani Mahapatra, a professor of political science at Jawaharlal Nehru University.
When, I asked him, did parties start politicking so intensely over the appointment of the president – over a post that was mostly ceremonial?
Mr. Mahapatra traced these intrigues back to the beginnings of coalition governments at the center. "There are multiple parties competing, with no party getting the clear required majority," he said, and in such cases, the constitution left it to the president's discretion to invite a party to form the government. "There's no statute to say that if Party A has 160 seats and Party B has 161 seats, that the president has to choose Party B. Party A could, with coalition allies, still form a government."
But the ability to install a president is also a mark of political prowess, and where there has been the potential for a power game, there has been politicking – even as far back as the election of India's first president, Rajendra Prasad.
After India became independent, C. Rajagopalachari – Rajaji, as he was widely known – served as the titular head of state, holding on to the Raj-era designation of governor-general as the country transitioned into a republic. In the mind of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Rajaji was also the best candidate for India's first president.
Courtesy of Photo Division, Ministry of Information and BroadcastingJawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India, in conversation with C. Rajagopalachari at the prime minister's residence in New Delhi, Nov. 15, 1949.
"'Rajaji' was an urbane scholar with whom the prime minister then got along very well," Ramachandra Guha writes in "India after Gandhi." But Nehru's rival power center within the Congress Party, Sardar Valabhbhai Patel, thought differently, and while niggles of disagreements had always plagued the Nehru-Patel relationship, the issue of the presidential election generated, in 1949, the singing heat of full-blown friction.
Mr. Patel's choice for president was Mr. Prasad, a teacher and lawyer who had just presided over the assembly that drafted India's constitution. This frustrated Mr. Nehru, who tended to be annoyed by Mr. Prasad's public religiosity – by, for instance, his stated dedication to renovating the Somnath temple in Gujarat.
The media picked up on the tension; in June 1949, Blitz magazine wrote: "Rajaji's supporters argue Rajendra Prasad [is] physically unfit for a strenuous job of this nature, while the other camp is raking up the past to damn C.R. as the man who paved the way for [the creation of] Pakistan."
In trying to quench such speculation, however, there began a furious triangular bout of letter-writing between Mr. Nehru, Mr. Prasad and Mr. Patel, each trying – with exquisite politeness – to get his way.
In early September, Mr. Nehru revealed his hand fully. In a letter to Mr. Prasad – excavated for me, along with other such correspondence, by the historian Srinath Raghavan – Mr. Nehru wrote:
…we felt that the safest and best course from a number of points of view was to allow present arrangements to continue, mutatis mutandis. That is that Rajaji might continue as President. That would involve the least change and the state machine would continue functioning as before… Also in a way to push out Rajaji at this stage would be almost a condemnation of his work. That would be most unfortunate.
Mr. Nehru perhaps expected Mr. Prasad to back down, in the face of such a loud and clear vote in favor of Rajaji. Mr. Prasad did not – because, quite possibly, he knew he had the staunch support of Mr. Patel. Writing back to Mr. Nehru – and Bcc'ing Mr. Patel, so to speak, on all these letters – Mr. Prasad pushed back:
You say that my election would involve change and rearrangement and that it would almost be a condemnation of Rajaji's work. It is not clear why change and rearrangement in this respect should be avoided, when the whole Constitution under which we have so long worked is going to change… There is no condemnation involved or implied if a man is not reappointed to a post…on the expiry of the term of his office… Please excuse the length of this letter and the feeling that I cannot help entertaining that I deserved a more decent [exit], particularly when I did not want an entry.
Through the latter half of September, while Mr. Nehru was visiting Great Britain and the United States, Mr. Patel kept up a stream of assurances to Mr. Prasad. Simultaneously, Mr. Nehru grew more acutely aware of the mood within his party. "I am told that very active and vigorous canvassing has taken place on this subject and there is a large majority who favour Rajendra Babu," he wrote to Mr. Patel. "This is not merely a question of favoring Rajendra Babu but rather of deliberately keeping Rajaji out."
Mr. Patel responded diplomatically, calling the situation "very complicated" and "rather baffling." The atmosphere, Mr. Patel wrote, "stinks in my nostrils and I wonder to what depths of intrigues and manoeuvrings [sic] we have lowered ourselves."
Even well into December, Mr. Nehru continued with his campaign to keep Rajaji on as president. In a long letter dated Dec. 8, 1949, he all but urged Mr. Prasad to drop out of the race immediately:
…[I]t would be an unseemly sight for the country and for the Congress for two of our most eminent leaders to contest against each other… What then can we do? It is patent that there are only two persons who might be chosen as President of the Republic – yourself and Rajaji… One of these two should, it seems to me, take the initiative in declaring that he will not stand for the Presidentship… I should be very grateful if you could advise me in this matter.
Mr. Prasad did not wilt:
I agree that a decision regarding the Presidentship of the Republic should be taken without any further delay… For some reason or other – justified or wholly wrong – there is a considerable opinion among the members of the Assembly who insist on my accepting the Presidentship… [I]t appears my not accepting the offer will be looked upon by them as a 'betrayal'… The inference that I draw from this is that the election of Rajaji will not be smooth even if I were to withdraw and propose his name.
In the end, the will of the majority of the Congress Party – and of Mr. Patel – prevailed. "Nehru would face not only one of his earliest major rebuffs over an executive appointment but also was to be given a head of state that for the first time truly tested the constitutional relationship between the head of state and the prime minister," the political scientist Harshan Kumarasingham observed in an article in Modern Asian Studies in 2010.
And while Mr. Nehru had to accept the choice of his party, he didn't have to like it. In "The Prime Minister and the President," James Manor recounted: "Prasad enraged Nehru by suggesting a change in the date of Republic Day … because it was astrologically inauspicious. He also tried unsuccessfully to include Hindu rituals in his presidential installation ceremony."
On Jan. 26, 1950, at 10:24 a.m., Mr. Prasad was sworn in as India's first president, the oath administered to him – ironically enough – by Rajaji, the retiring governor-general. The very next day, on a flight back to Madras, Rajaji wrote a short and supportive letter to the new president, displaying some of the tact and pragmatism that once earned him the description of "the wisest man in India."
My dear Rajen Babu,
My thought goes back naturally to you all whom I have left behind… May you find all the strength and the support you require! I go out with joy in my heart at the beautiful manner in which the little changeover has taken place. There was nothing to mar the beauty of it. God bless you all.
And then, after a signature, Rajaji added a postscript that can only be read, in the light of the events that preceded it, as a final burst of mischievousness:
P.S. Please show this to Jawaharlal and Vallabhbhai. I am not writing separately to them. – C.R.