Rajendra Prasad was no rubberstamp head of state

Dr. Rajendra Prasad was no rubberstamp

The assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, on January 30, 1948, brought Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Patel, differing on various issues, together. On Nehru’s 60th birthday, 14 November 1948, Patel praised Nehru for leading the nation safely out of the crisis that faced the country during the year and for enhancing India’s image abroad.

Nehru responded by describing Patel as a tower of strength who was there to advise and act firmly. Patel also wrote: “Mahatma Gandhi named Pt. Nehru as his heir and successor. Since Gandhiji’s death we have realized our leader’s judgement was correct.”

However, the relations between the prime minister and the home minister in independent India got strained over the choice of the first president. Nehru had wanted the first Indian governor general after independence, C Rajagopalachari, or Rajaji as he was called, to be bestowed the honour.

Rajendra Prasad was no rubberstamp

He had, in fact, persuaded, Rajendra Prasad, who was Patel’s choice, to step aside in favour of Rajaji. Nehru called a meeting of Congress Parliamentary Party (CPP) members to ascertain their views. The majority, dominated by north Indian MPs, expressed their preference for Prasad.

The MPs had not forgiven Rajaji for resigning from the party when the Quit India movement was launched in 1942. The great democrat that he was, Nehru bowed to the party’s wish and paved the way for Rajendra Prasad to be the first President.

But from the start relations between the new President and his Prime Minister were uneasy. Prasad wanted the day fixed for the declaration of the Republic, 26 January, changed because his astrologers had told him that it was not an auspicious day. Nehru did not lose the opportunity to tell his President that India would not be run by astrologers, at least as long as he was around.

Prasad’s insensitivity was surprising because 26 January commemorated a major event in the political history of the country; it was the anniversary of the national celebration which Gandhi had organised after the ‘purna swaraj‘ resolution moved by Nehru exactly two decades before, and the Congress used to celebrate that as Independence day each year.

Nehru wrote to Prasad: “I am afraid I have no faith in astrology and certainly I should not like to fix up national programmes in accordance with the dictates of astrologers. The change of date 26th January for another date would require a great deal of explanation and would not redound to our credit in the world or, for the matter of that, with large numbers of people in India.”

Filmindia Cartoon about Rajendra Prasad

The restoration of the Somnath temple had been approved by the Nehru cabinet soon after Junagadh acceded to India in November 1947. Its reconstruction however was completed only a few months after Sardar Patel had passed away in December 1950. KM Munshi, a cabinet minister, who was the chairman of the official committee of reconstruction of the temple, approached Prasad to inaugurate the temple.

Installation of the jyotirlingam was a part of the inaugural ceremony. Munshi was apprehensive that the President might not accept the invitation in view of the fact that Nehru was not in favor of a secular state associating itself with a religious ceremony. Prasad, however, disregarded the prime minister’s objections and attended the ceremony, which drew scathing criticism from the socialists and communist leaders.

The first president was personally and ideologically opposed to the enactment of the Hindu Code Bill. When this bill came before the provisional parliament, Prasad had objected to it on the basis of locus standi and said that since it was not an elected parliament, such an important measure should not be considered and passed by it.

He wrote to Nehru that he would act solely according to his own judgement, independently of the council of ministers, when giving assent to the bill. Prasad desired to use the power of his office to force the provisional parliament to shelve the measure or, failing that, to veto it even against the advice of his cabinet. It is to Nehru’s credit that he gave a very mature and blunt advice to Prasad not to over-step the limits of his office.

Nehru wrote: In our view, the President had no power or authority to go against the will of Parliament in regard to a Bill that has been well considered by it and passed. The whole conception of constitutional government is against any exercise by the President of such authority… The question of the competence of the present Parliament to enact such a measure was raised in Parliament itself, and after much discussion, the Speaker gave a ruling on the subject… It is hardly open to anyone, even the President, to challenge that decision.”

Fortunately, the President did not pursue the matter and a constitutional dead-lock was avoided. Nehru visited the Soviet Union in June 1955 and the reception he received on arrival in Moscow was unprecedented – something no visiting head of State or Government has received after him. The Russians went all out to fete Nehru.

The feeling in India was one of exultation over the triumphant tour of their national hero. Swept along by the wave, President Prasad decided to bestow the highest honour, Bharat Ratna on the prime minister. Prasad’s explanation was straightforward. He said: ‘Jawahar is literally a Bharat Ratna (Jewel of India). Why not formally make him one?’

In so doing the President disregarded the well-established convention of a formal ceremony: the decoration was awarded at a banquet without a citation.

However the relation between the President and the prime Minister continued to be strained. There was high drama before Prasad got his second term as President. Nehru wanted Vice President Dr S Radhakrishnan elevated but once again the majority view in the CPP favored a second term for Prasad.

Though Dr. Rajendra Prasad’s last term was comparatively a smooth affair he ensured, despite Nehru’s awe-inspiring national and international stature, that he was far from being a rubber-stamp President.

(Praveen Davar is a Member of National Commission for Minorities. The views expressed are personal. He may be contacted at praveendavar@gmail.com)

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