27 October marks the 100th birth anniversary of former President Mr K R Narayanan, India's first Dalit President, and a statesman par excellence. He was an outstanding scholar, a brilliant diplomat, and a great citizen who always stood for the cause of common people. He was a great defender of constitutional principles and values. As the President of India, he proved that the President is not a rubber stamp. He became the President of India on 25 July 1997. Before that, he was the Vice-President of India. He was the first Dalit who became the President. He acted as an active constitutional President who was rightly called citizen President. His presidential tenure is known for some important constitutional developments in the country. He did not hesitate to confront the government as and when he noticed any violation of the Constitution by the government. He was born on 27 October 1920 in Kerala in a Dalit family. He received s scholarship from Tata and went to the London School of Economics for higher education. Professor Harold J. Laski had taught him in LSE. Thereafter he joined the Indian Foreign Service and served as an Ambassador in many countries. He also served as a minister in the Union Government and the Vice-Chancellor of the Jawaharlal Nehru University. He was a multi-faceted personality.
Under our constitutional scheme, the President of India occupies a unique position. He is the constitutional head of the Union Government. Now, after several judgments of the Supreme Court on the issue of constitutional powers and position of the President of India, it is well-settled that the President is a constitutional head of the Union Government who acts on the aid and advice of the Council of Ministers headed by the Prime Minister in the exercise of his functions as mandated under Article 74 of the Constitution. As per the actual constitutional practice, the Prime Minister is the real head of the Union Government and the President is mostly bound to act on the advice of the Union Council of Ministers headed by the Prime Minister. The President cannot exercise his constitutional powers without the advice of the Council of Ministers but he is not a rubber stamp or a cipher at all. There are certain situations where he can act on his own discretion either by disregarding the advice of the Council of Ministers or even without receiving the advice from the Union Council of Ministers. In addition to this, under Article 78 of the Constitution the President can encourage the government to run the administration as per the constitutional norms.
After the 44th Constitutional Amendment Act, 1978, the President is constitutionally empowered to send the advice back to the Council of Ministers for its reconsideration once but thereafter he is bound to act on the reconsidered advice of the Council of Ministers. It is the Council of Ministers which has the final say in the matter. The Council of Ministers is fully competent to accept or reject the President's remarks, comments, or suggestions. The President of India cannot impose his views on the Council of Ministers. However, the Constitution does not prescribe any time limit during which the President has to act on the ministerial advice and this lacuna provides him an opportunity to put the matter on hold for an indefinite period. In political jurisprudence, this is called a pocket veto. In 1986, the then President Zail Singh had exercised this option in the case of the Indian Post Office Amendment Bill, 1986, and prevented this Bill from becoming a law as it was alleged to have violated the privacy of the personal correspondence of the people. It is well-known that President Zail Singh had serious differences with the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi on several issues including the Punjab issue. But ultimately it depends on the personality of the President and his will power to confront the Prime Minister for protecting the Constitution and public interest. Very few Presidents have shown this kind of attitude in our country. President Narayanan was one of such presidents who left an indelible imprint on the Indian presidency. He never hesitated to speak the truth to the government. Let us visit some phases of his wonderful presidential tenure.
It is pertinent to mention that during the NDA government (Atal Bihari Vajpayee as Prime Minister) the National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution was constituted. But President Narayanan was against this exercise and did not hesitate to express his views publicly. The Vajpayee government had advised the President to support the move to review the Constitution but President Narayanan did not hesitate to express his dissenting views and the government was forced to drop the idea of reviewing the Constitution.
In U.P. and Bihar matters also, President Narayanan demonstrated the influence of the highest constitutional office of the country. His presidential activism was widely appreciated in the country. In an interview with N. Ram, the then Editor of The Hindu, on 14 August 1998, President Narayanan spoke about the constitutional role of the President of India. This is what he said: "I think the President has a constitutional role to play. My image of a President before I came here, and before I had any hope of coming here, was that of a rubber-stamp President, to be frank. This is the image I got. But having come here, I find that the image is not quite correct. I thought, I will have lot of time, leisure for reading, writing, waking etc. But somehow, I find I cannot get it now. So, my image of a President is of a working President, not an executive President, but a working President, and working within the four corners of the Constitution. It gives very little direct power or influence to him to interfere in matters or affect the course of events, but there is a subtle influence of the office of the President on the executive and the other arms of the government and on the public as a whole. It is a position which has to be used with, what I should say, with a philosophy of indirect approach. There are one or two things, which you can directly do in very critical times. But otherwise, this indirect influence that you can exercise on the affairs of the state is the most important role he can play. And, he can play it successfully only if he is, his ideas and his nature of functioning are seen by the public in tune with their standards."
Notably, President Narayanan acted as a constitutional President as per the role that he mentioned in his interview. He took a strong stand two times when the Union Council of Ministers had recommended the imposition of Article 356 of the Constitution in U.P. and Bihar respectively on different occasions. He had returned the advice to the Council of Ministers for its reconsideration and was successful in convincing the government to withdraw their decisions.
In 1997, the Union Council of Ministers headed by the then Prime Minister I K Gujaral had recommended to the President to dissolve the Legislative Assembly of Uttar Pradesh and impose President's rule as per Article 356 of the Constitution. At that time, BJP leader Kalyan Singh was the Chief Minister of U.P. President Narayanan did not hesitate to return the advice to the Council of Ministers for reconsideration. As per proviso to Article 74(1) of the Constitution, President Narayanan returned the advice for reconsideration. The then Prime Minister Gujral talked to him and withdrew the decision of his Cabinet accordingly. This was an unprecedented presidential intervention. Had the Gujral Cabinet sent the same advice back to the President, the President would have had no alternative but to approve it. But Prime Minister Gujral honoured President Narayan's views and withdrew his decision. This was indeed a successful presidential intervention that was widely noted and appreciated in the country. President Narayanan had read the S R Bommai judgment thoroughly before returning the Cabinet's advice for reconsideration. The Kalyan Singh government was saved through his constitutionally justified intervention. The President is duty-bound to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution as per the mandate of his oath of office under Article 60 of the Constitution. President Narayanan truly fulfilled the mandate of the oath of office.
Again in 1998, President Narayanan returned the advice of Vajpayee government for Cabinet's reconsideration. The Cabinet headed by Prime Minister Vajpayee had recommended the imposition of President's rule in Bihar under Article 356 of the Constitution. President Narayanan studied the Cabinet's proposal and asked the Prime Minister to reconsider the move of his government. Prime Minister Vajpayee respected the presidential views and did not persist.
India needs Presidents like K R Narayanan who can protect the Constitution effectively. President K R Narayanan was a role model. The fine precedents that he set as President of India would continue to inspire the future Presidents to truly act as citizen presidents who take their oath of office seriously. President Narayanan proved that the President is not a rubber-stamp. No government can take the President for granted. President Narayanan was an outstanding President. He was people's President. I pay my sincere tribute to this great son of Bharat Mata on the occasion of his birth centenary.
Views are personal
(Author is practising Lawyer at the Supreme Court of India)