A copybook President

R Venkataraman served with great distinction as President during a crucial period in its political history. Any one without his temperament and disposition, or his knowledge and understanding, would have ill-served the office during the five-year term, from 1987 to 1992, when the country definitively moved from single-party rule to the coalition era. During that period of political instability that saw him work with four Prime Ministers, President Venkataraman drew upon his deep knowledge of the Constitution and Parliamentary procedures and precedents. Not given to presidential overreach, he was a stickler for rules, avoided needless controversies, and gave the presidency a quiet dignity and stateliness. At no time did he stretch the limits of presidential discretion, always taking care not to entertain appeals over the head of the political government. Indeed, Venkataraman, who saw the British monarch as the model for the Indian President, argued that it was safer to go by the British precedent of accepting the recommendation of the Prime Minister on dissolution of the House “rather than rely on erudite and eminent textbook writers.” In 1989, when the general election threw up a hung Lok Sabha, Venkataraman decided to give the first opportunity to form a government to the leader of the single largest party, rather than take up the exercise of assessing the strength of any post-election combination of parties. Again, a rule that would minimise the role of presidential discretion was applied.

To his credit, Venkataraman resisted the temptation of heading a national government, an idea he himself had mooted at the time of the fall of the V.P. Singh government. In his book My Presidential Years, he recalls that the Bharatiya Janata Party leader A.B. Vajpayee asked him whether he was prepared to step down as President and assume the leadership of a national government. “I told him that the President should not set this wrong and dangerous precedent as it might kindle ambitions in future Presidents to meddle and indulge in machinations against the Prime Minister,” he adds. Similarly, during the split in the Janata Dal, he scrupulously avoided interfering with the question of disqualifying or recognising the splinter group. Quite rightly, he maintained that it was entirely for the Speaker to settle the issue and the “President had no say in the matter.” On all occasions when there was scope for partisan political play, he went by the book, refusing to be swayed by interest groups or his own personal ambitions or political predilection. Venkataraman’s years as President were then marked as much by what he did not do as by what he did.

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