The president who used the ‘pocket veto’ to block legislation he disagreed with
Giani Zail Singh’s tenure saw an uncomfortable relationship with two prime ministers.
The man who called Sanjay Gandhi a ‘rehnuma’ and said when he was elected: ‘If my leader said I should take a broom and be a sweeper, I would have done it. She chose me to be president,” had an uncomfortable relationship with Indira Gandhi, who chose her, and with Rajiv Gandhi, whom he chose as prime minister. Indira Gandhi kept him in the dark about Operation Bluestar, which saw the army enter the Golden Temple of Amritsar. Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure saw for over two years not only the Prime Minister but none of his ministerial colleagues visit the Rashtrapati Bhavan to brief the President. A study of the Giani Zail Singh years, 1982-87, provides an interesting case study of the operation of Section 74 of the Constitution of India.
Zail Singh was the first Sikh and the first OBC to become Rashtrapati. Born into the family of a carpenter from the former princely state of Faridkot, he was named Jairnail Singh by his parents. He fought a bitter struggle against the ruler and was frequently imprisoned between 1940 and 1947, earning him the epithet “Jail Singh”, which he incorporated as Zail Singh in his documents. This zeal for confrontation seems to have guided him when he was the Rashtrapati.
Prior to becoming president, Zail Singh had served as Punjab’s Chief Minister and Union Home Secretary. The rise of Bhindranwale in Punjab has been attributed by some to the official promotion of Sikh Panth by the government of Punjab. So when Operation Blue Star was carried out by the army, the president, who is considered the supreme commander of the armed forces, was not informed. Indira Gandhi used to meet the president for a routine briefing, which PMs do, a day before the Amritsar operation. Blue Star did not appear in the speech.
The Akal Takht published a notice on Zail Singh. There were demands from a section of Sikhs that he should resign. He chose to remain calm. The revolt of some troops of the Sikh regiment had vitiated the environment. He told his close advisers that he did not want to create a situation in which Sikhs would be pushed around the corner. The Akal Takht sent him a notice. He sent a response through his media assistant, Tarlochan Singh, who managed to convince the clerics that Zail Singh had no role in Blue Star. The decision to excommunicate him from the Panth has been dropped. Prominent editor Khushwant Singh wrote in his column, “Tarlochan Singh saved the president from being declared Tankhaiya”.
After Operation Blue Star, Zail Singh’s presidency saw a major challenge when Andhra Pradesh Governor Thakur Ram Lal, apparently at the behest of Congress, swore in the state finance minister, N Bhaskar Rao as the CM, while the CM, NT Ramarao (NTR) had gone to the United States for an operation. NTR, which with its Telugu Desam party had defeated Congress in 1983, rushed in and brought 160 MPs to Rashtrapati Bhavan as a show of force. Zail Singh asked the Governor to reverse his act and also recommended Ram Lal’s dismissal. The next PA governor, Kumudben Joshi, also received a missive from the president advising him “not to interfere in state politics”. (The SR Bommai judgement, which determined that the soil of the Vidhan Sabha is the right place for a showdown, came a decade later, in 1994.)
When Indira Gandhi was assassinated, Zail Singh was on a state visit to North Yemen. He immediately returned from Sanaa. He later described the turn of events to this writer: “Before leaving Sanaa, I asked the secretary to the president, Ashoke Bandopadhyay, to fetch a copy of the Constitution from the embassy. I studied the Constitution with its help and realized that while under Article 74 the President is bound by the assistance and advice of the Council of Ministers, Article 75 states that the Prime Minister is appointed by the President and Ministers are appointed on the advice of the Prime Minister. . Thus, I realized that the only original power of the President is to choose the Prime Minister, after being satisfied that the person enjoys the support of the majority of Lok Sabha MPs. I owed my position to Indiraji and knew that she had wanted her son to be her successor. Her favorite son, Sanjayji, was no more. So I asked Bandopadhyay to contact Rajiv Gandhi. I was advised that as we were flying in international airspace near Pakistan, only incoming communications and air communications were enabled – my thought process should not be leaked via radio transmission. So I waited. Upon arriving in Delhi, I rushed to AIIMS. Rajivji was there. I put my hand on his shoulder and invited him to take the oath as Prime Minister.
The story goes that while Zail Singh was driving from Palam to AIIMS, the presidential motorcade was stoned. The chaos of 1984 over the Sikhs had then erupted. Normally, the Prime Minister should have been sworn in after being elected by the Congress Party in Parliament (CPP). Zail Singh was sworn in to Rajiv Gandhi with no nod from the RPC. When Jawaharlal Nehru and Lal Bahadur Shastri died in 1964 and 1966, the senior cabinet member, Gulzari Lal Nanda, had served as acting prime minister. If this precedent had been followed, Pranab Mukherjee should have been sworn in the meantime. It was not to be because Zail Singh was overwhelmed with his emotion for Indira Gandhi.
The relationship between him and Rajiv Gandhi deteriorated soon after. A week later, at a condolence meeting for Indira Gandhi, the president was kicked out. After Rajiv Gandhi returned with over 400 terms, Rashtrapati Bhavan, which is located a few hundred meters from South Block, the headquarters of the PMO, has become a distant land for the prime minister and his ministers. The usual PM briefing was interrupted. The ministers did not respond to the president’s summons. The government began sending Vice President R. Venkataraman on ceremonial trips abroad. Nearly 40 invitations received by Rashtrapati Bhavan from abroad went unanswered. Zail Singh is the president who has traveled the least abroad – he has only made four trips during his term. Inspired by political masters, the military also showed disdain: Army Chief of Staff K. Sundarji began sending letters beginning with “Dear Rashtrapati”, instead of the usually call “commander-in-chief”, which as supreme leader. Commander of the Armed Forces ordained by the Constitution, the President is entitled to it.
Zail Singh suspected he was under surveillance. Visitors whom he wanted to confide in were taken for walks in the Mughal Gardens where he chatted freely – he used to say that the rooms of Rashtrapati Bhavan were not safe for conversation. After Rajiv Gandhi became Prime Minister, the free access to PM House for ordinary workers, who were accustomed to Indira Gandhi’s morning “durbar” which was an open house, saw a change. Security had been tightened. SPG had taken over. Reacting to this, Zail Singh once told a visitor, “Andar maujan hi maujan, bahar faujan hi faujan (There is fun inside, troops are stationed outside)” referring to PM House. “Andar Italians, bahar battalions,” he added. This was reported by the intelligence services and the chasm widened.
In 1986, Zail Singh refused to sign on the dotted line. Article 74, as amended by the 42nd and 44th Amendments, implies that if the President is not satisfied with any assistance or advice from the Cabinet, he may request clarifications or modifications and return them. once. Thereafter, if the aid or advice is canceled after consideration by the Council of Ministers, the President is required to sign on the dotted line. The Indian Post Office (Amendment) Bill was passed by Parliament in 1986 – it authorized the government to intercept all mail. Zail Singh, perhaps inspired by the US practice of the President’s “Pocket Veto”, did not send him back for reconsideration – he simply kept the case in abeyance. Since the case was not returned, the legislation remained in limbo. [It was ultimately withdrawn by the V.P. Singh regime in 1990 when Congress(S) leader K.P. Unnikrishnan was the Communications Minister.] The uproar that followed Zail Singh’s “inaction” gave Rajiv Gandhi’s regime a bad name. Later, when the Bofors scandal erupted in the penultimate months of Zail Singh’s presidency, the Cabinet passed a resolution rejecting a missive from the Rashtrapati, who wanted to be informed and had requested the record dealing with the contract.
Zail Singh was the first to pay an official tribute to Subhas Chandra Bose. He invited his daughter Anita Pfaff and made her a state guest, hosting her at Rashtrapati Bhavan. It was almost three decades before Narendra Modi ordered all documents related to Netaji to be made public.
The relationship between Rajiv Gandhi and Zail Singh also soured as two prominent Indira-era congressmen, Pranab Mukherjee and R. Gundu Rao, who had been sidelined after 1984, were regular visitors to Rashtrapati Bhavan. Zail Singh had not been sworn to Pranab Mukherjee, while preferring Rajiv Gandhi, but their political relationship continued unabated. When Zail Singh’s centenary was celebrated in May 2016, Mukherjee as president presided over a grand ceremony at Rashtrapati Bhavan.