Presidents and conventions: History revisited

In my last post, I suggested that the long string of precedents after Rajendra Prasad’s second term as President, limiting the terms of Prasad’s successors to one, cannot be called a convention, because there has been no agreement on this across the political spectrum, and there is no good reason for the same. Still, I was intrigued by two questions. 1. Why and how Rajendra Prasad secured a second term in 1957? 2. Why did not Dr.Radhakrishnan get a second term in office in 1967? While Austin suggested that it was not clear what was the convention, there is reason to believe that Jawaharlal Nehru wanted to create a convention of limiting the term of the President to one. In 1957, Jawaharlal Nehru desired that the then Vice-President, Dr.Radhakrishnan succeeded Prasad as President. S.Gopal’s biography of Radhakrishnan cites the relevant correspondence to suggest that Prasad first wrote to Nehru in January 1955 indicating that he would like to retire as he had completed five years in office. Nehru replied to him to hang on till 1957, making no request to continue beyond his current term. So, Nehru took Prasad for granted, and did not conceal his expectation and desire that Radhakrishnan would succeed Prasad, whom he had found stuffy and slow-going, in Bagehot’s phrase a ‘consecrated obstruction’. In December 1956, when Nehru was in Washington, a concerted chorus in the press that it had been practically decided to invite Prasad to continue in office and that he had agreed was built up thanks to the then Education Minister, Abul Kalam Azad, who was uncomfortable with Dr.Radhakrishnan. Nehru’s clarification that he had not thought about the issue could not smother discussion. On March 23, 1957, Nehru discussed with Prasad as an old colleague, and urged the need for healthy convention. Prasad heard him out in silence, and made no commitment. A signature campaign was then started in support of Prasad among the MPs. In the six-member Congress Parliamentary Board which met in March 1957, Nehru was virtually isolated. Morarji Desai, the other CPB member, who, like Nehru, wished to back Dr.Radhakrishnan, was too ill to attend the CPB. Azad, another CPB Member managed to influence the remaining three fence-sitters, Jagjivan Ram, G.V.Pant and U.N.Dhebar (the then President of Congress) in the CPB in favour of Prasad’s continuance. Nehru, accepting defeat, ruefully commented: “What weight do I carry with the Parliamentary Board?’ Later, Nehru wrote a apologetic personal letter to Dr.Radhakrishnan stating: “in the circumstances as now existing …it would be difficult and unwise to lay stress on the convention we would like to develop. And so, they (many of Nehru’s colleagues) felt that in the wider interests of the country, in the balance, they should agree to the President standing again for election. If a year or more ago we had been wise enough to lay down this convention, it would have been easy now. But personal equations have arisen now, and have an important influence.”
But was there a good reason for this desirable convention? Nehru spoke out against the same persons continuing in places of high responsibility. But he himself was not averse to have three terms as Prime Minister (even though the posts of President and the PM are not strictly comparable). Dr.Radhakrishnan offered to quit as the Vice-President, to set up the convention that posts of honour should not be held for more than one term. And he did offer a good reason: “Removal of the unfortunate impression that men in high places do not voluntarily retire was in the larger interests of a young democracy”. But it was another matter that the CPB did not let Radhakrishnan quit, if only because it would show up Prasad in such a poor light. In 1967, Radhakrishnan was emerging as the only person acceptable to both the Congress and the Opposition for a second term. But he was determined to depart, and left several hints. S.Gopal says Indira Gandhi was not so keen to retain Radhakrishnan as to consider withdrawing her support to Zakir Husain, then Vice-President. Gopal says: Had the Congress at this time announced its choice of Radhakrishnan for a second term, all parties and groups in the opposition would have probably also given their assent. But the differences between Kamaraj and Indira Gandhi precluded a quick decision, and provided stray political elements with scope for intrigue. Meanwhile, the Opposition parties sponsored the Chief Justice of India Subba Rao as their candidate, sensing that Indira Gandhi would back Husain. Radhakrishnan still did not back out officially, blinded he was because of his affection for his friend, Kamaraj who promised that he would mobilise support for him. Radhakrishnan announced his withdrawal belatedly, after Subbarao agreed to be the candidate of the Opposition. So, even if there had been a good reason for the convention, it did not clearly evolve, because the participants did not subscribe to it in letter and spirit. (I am grateful to Mr.Arun Thiruvengadam and Mr.Srinivasan for their suggestions and comments on the earlier post, which motivated me to write this.)
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