President Kalam’s tenure:Mr.A.G.Noorani’s critique & the truth

Mr.A.G.Noorani is the latest commentator to offer a critical assessment of A.P.J.Abdul Kalam’s tenure as President. His article in HT and Mr.Harish Khare’s article in The Hindu make the similar point that Kalam loved to overstep the limits of his office. While the authors are entitled to their views, facts are sacrosanct, and they need to be pointed out respectfully. Both AGN and HK refer to Kalam’s last interview to India Today to show that he preferred a Presidency, unlimited by the Constitution and the laws. I think that such an inference would be entirely unfair, as Kalam would not have meant what the columnists wish to infer from that interview.

Here, I wish to confine myself with AGN’s view that Kalam wished to take the reins of the Centre in 2004, faced with a recommendation from Vajpayee to dissolve the Lok Sabha. Kalam wanted Vajpayee to resign, and when the latter refused, citing the precedents and the law, he blinked, AGN says on the basis of an earlier article written in HT by Vir Sanghvi.

On Jan.27th 2004, the NDA/Cabinet resolved to prematurely dissolve the Lok Sabha, eight months ahead of the schedule. The President is approached with the recommendation. President Kalam wanted to know the reason for the premature dissolution. No reason was forthcoming. Instead, precedents were cited: 1970 when Indira Gandhi dissolved the Lok Sabha prematurely, despite her majority and in 1977 when she dissolved again, after extending the life of the Lok Sabha by one year.

After this, Kalam sought a specific legal opinion from the AG, Soli Sorabjee on whether he was bound by the recommendation of the Union Cabinet on dissolution. Soli himself shared this with me. I have no reason to doubt this, even though I had reason to differ from his opinion, tendered to the President.

What did Soli tell the President? Since a specific legal opinion was sought from him, Soli told Kalam that a President was bound unless the ruling party or combination has lost its majority in the Lower House.

Kalam was aware that the NDA did not lose its majority in the lower house. So, why did he want to know whether he was bound by the recommendation to dissolve the Lok Sabha? The reason was, according to the Rashtrapathi Bhavan spokesman whom I spoke to at that time, because Vajpayee sought premature dissolution. Kalam, therefore, wanted to know why he wanted to prematurely dissolve – especially when he enjoyed comfortable majority in Lok Sabha.

A Prime Minister cannot refuse to answer this question. Both in 1970 and in 1977, the Prime Minister took the nation into confidence, and explained the reasons for premature dissolution, and opting for early polls. But Vajpayee did not do so, because he had narrow party interests in mind. Neither the NDA, nor Vajpayee/BJP explain even once why they recommended premature dissolution, even though the speculation was that he wanted to cash in on the India Shining atmosphere. But a President cannot accede to narrow party considerations of a Prime Minister.

Since Vajpayee did not answer this question, Kalam wanted to know whether the Prime Minister was resigning, along with the recommendation to dissolve. If a Prime Minister did not want to continue in power till the end of his term what inference that one would draw? It was Kalam’s way of saying, ‘No, Prime Minister, please go back and govern for the rest of your term, as your majority is intact and there is no crisis to your government”. Rather than Kalam, it was Vajpayee who blinked, and groped for an appropriate answer. The Law Minister then explained that there was no need to resign, citing the 1970 and 1977 precedents, even though both these precedents were not exactly relevant.

Kalam’s asking Vajpayee about resignation was not to get rid of him, and choose his own government, but to make him reveal the reasons for his recommendation. If Vajpayee resigned with a majority on his side, then it could have clearly meant that he wanted early polls, keeping the party interests in mind. In which case, Kalam, if there were no viable alternative claimants in sight, could have asked Vajpayee to continue in caretaker capacity till the conclusion of elections.

Please remember, Vajpayee’s caretaker status was important to ensure free and fair elections, as even the then CEC, Krishna Murthy deplored the fact that the Union Government was spending money on Indian shining campaign using the interregnum (10days) between the decision to prematurely dissolve theLok Sabha and the actual announcement of date for elections. But Vajpayee-Arun Jaitley duo wanted to avoid the caretaker status, and hence the argument that he need not resign. In the event, the differences apparent in the contexts of 1970, 1977 and 2004 were ignored.

In reply to Kalam, Soli cited the 1972 U.N.R.Rao ruling of the Supreme Court. In that case, the petitioner argued that with the dissolution of the Lok Sabha the Council of Ministers ceases to exist, and that the President could act on his own. The Court rejected this contention. In 2004, the issue was not that, there was no reason to suspect that Kalam wanted to act on his own, and with a possible resignation by Vajpayee, the Council of Ministers would cease to exist. Kalam only wanted to know whether he was “bound” by the advice; there were only two options: either to accept the advice, if he is bound or reject it, if he is not bound. Had he rejected the advice, it would mean Vajpayee must complete his term, and not seek premature dissolution. It would not have meant that Vajpayee must resign and pave the way for his successor.

Kalam’s query to Soli could not be interpreted to mean whether he could go on a fishing expedition to bring an alternative Government to power, or himself take over the reins of administration. These are far-fetched inferences, not based on reality.

Soli also cited the Shamsher Singh judgment of the Supreme Court to show that the advice was binding on Kalam. But in that Judgment, Justice Krishna Iyer clearly said a Prime Minister who wanted premature dissolution must appeal to the nation, (appeal to the country is “necessitous”) even though the President is normally bound. IN 2004, Vajpayee did not appeal to the nation explaining the reasons for premature dissolution. Therefore, Kalam was justified in asking Vajpayee whether he should resign, and asking Soli whether he was bound by the advice to dissolve. My earlier post on the same subject is here.

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