The Indian Constitution came into effect on 26 January 1950. Later that day, Rajendra Prasad, a distinguished veteran of the Indian National Congress became the first president of the newly created Republic of India. The Constitution’s fate would rest significantly on Prasad’s shoulders. Was he up to the task?
In designing its central institutions of government, India heavily borrowed from the Westminster model. But the highest constitutional office – an elected presidency – wasn’t one of them; it had no modern British lineage.
Designing this new office proved challenging. The Constituent Assembly, a large body of modestly elected persons, agonized over many models and multiple drafts. As the president of the Constituent Assembly, Rajendra Prasad was intimately involved in the deliberations.
The Assembly had three models to choose from: a monarch, a directly-elected president or an indirectly-elected president. Suddenly inventing a monarchy wasn’t feasible. So, the Assembly had to opt for more democratic varieties. In its first round of deliberations, Assembly opted for a directly-elected president. But doubts soon appeared. Would a president backed by a national mandate collide with a prime minister? Better sense prevailed, and the Assembly backed off. An indirectly-elected president it would be.
Type was only one issue. Equally important was the issue of powers: Precisely, what powers should this indirectly-elected president have? With the Westminster model looming large, members agreed that the president, like the British monarch, wouldn’t rule. Prime ministers and their cabinets would. A ceremonial president is what the Assembly, it seems, settled on. Remember: Prasad helped craft that agreement.
Curiously, the Constitution, its precise language, did not reflect that agreement. Instead, it reposed the president with two major roles. Article 53 made the president the repository of executive powers: “The executive power of the Union shall be vested in the President and shall be exercised by him either directly or through officers subordinate to him in accordance with this Constitution.” Article 74, in the original Constitution, heightened his sense of power: “There shall be a Council of Ministers with the Prime Minister at the head to aid and advice the President in the exercise of his functions.” And Article 79 made the president a constitutive part of Parliament: “There shall be a Parliament for the Union which shall consist of the President and two Houses to be known respectively as the council of States and the House of the People.” This was in addition to scores of other provisions that seemed to confer specific powers on the president.
Soon after the Constitution came into effect, skirmishes broke out between President Prasad and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Prasad no longer felt bound by the “agreement” in the Constituent Assembly. The powers of the president, he said, were those the text of the Constitution dictated. Nehru, on the other hand, read the provisions and the powers they conferred through lens of the agreement in the Assembly. Reading the provisions without any sense of the Westminster system, he said, would undo the delicate balance the Constitution had created.
The battle lines were clearly drawn. Prasad emphasized the text above all else. To him, the text meant how it read. To Nehru, the constitutional text was merely a gloss. Making sense of it required an understanding of India’s gradual adoption of the Westminster system.
This interpretative battle was fought several times, and they were India’s original struggle over constitutional meaning. High on Prime Minister Nehru’s agenda early on was the modernization of Hindu personal law – the law of marriage, divorce, adoption and inheritance of Hindus. Nehru wanted to reform and modernize Hindu customary law. But only Hindu law. Personal laws of Muslims and other religious minorities didn’t figure in his legislative agenda. Prasad objected, both on constitutional and personal grounds. Reforming only Hindu codes would be discriminatory, he said. He made it known that if enacted by the two Houses of Parliament, he would exercise his independent judgment when it came to assent. He also made it clear that he would likely withhold assent – something a British monarch hadn’t done for many centuries.
And then there were land reform Bills that both Houses of Parliament overwhelmingly voted for. But Prasad agonized over them, again on constitutional grounds. Not enough compensation had been provided for, he said, to those whose land had been taken over. Nehru wouldn’t have this. He insisted on a rubber-stamp president, not an independent, political one. With Prasad insisting on real powers, Nehru lined up a battery of legal eagles to make the case for a republican president in name only. And then there were threats, too. Unable to get his way, Nehru on more than one occasion threatened to resign if Prasad stalled his agenda.
Ultimately, the Indian electorate settled the matter. The first general elections in 1952 conferred on Jawaharlal Nehru a massive democratic mandate. Prasad saw the writing on the wall. He backed off. The text, its powers, didn’t matter; it didn’t mean what it said. India, after all, was going to be a Westminster system. (Between 1950 and 1952, president and parliament functioned on the basis of elections last conducted in 1937.)
Rajendra Prasad remained president until 1962. He was first formally (indirectly) elected in 1952, and then again, in 1957. So far, he remains the only person to have served two terms as president. With his reading of presidential powers written off by the Indian electorate, Prasad for most his long term stood relegated to ceremonial functions – in line with Nehru’s original conception of what the presidency was meant to be.
It should, then, come as no surprise that Nehru steadfastly opposed Prasad’s candidature as president. But the latter ultimately prevailed within the Congress party. And that shouldn’t come as a surprise. Like Nehru, Prasad, too, had a long and distinguished record in the Congress party.
Born on 3 December 1884 in the Bengal Presidency of Siwan (present day Bihar), Prasad showed great promise as a student. He graduated with a Masters in Economics from the University of Calcutta in 1907, and later completed his Masters in Law in 1915. He earned a doctorate in law from Allahabad University in 1937.
His association with the Congress party began during his student years in Calcutta (now Kolkata), and he formally became a member of the party in 1911. He became the president of the Indian National Congress in 1934, and again in 1939. He also became a minister in Jawaharlal Nehru’s Interim Government in 1946. In 1962, he was conferred the highest civilian honor in India, the Bharat Ratna. He died on 28 February 1963.
Rajendra Prasad lost out in making the president an independent center of power. But as Indian politics degenerated into the chaos of coalition politics in the 1990s, once again, there were calls for the president to assert his “independence”. With the comfort of a stable single-party rule over, political parties and commentators in India looked to the president to exercise authority and judgment. Perhaps Prasad was right all along – and far too ahead of the times.