Giani Zail Singh’s tenure saw uncomfortable relationship with two Prime Ministers.
The man who had referred to Sanjay Gandhi as “rehnuma” and said on his election, “If my leader had said I should pick up a broom and be a sweeper, I’d have done that. She chose me to be President”, had an uncomfortable relationship with Indira Gandhi, who chose him and with Rajiv Gandhi, whom he chose as the Prime Minister. Indira Gandhi kept him in the dark about Operation Bluestar, which saw Army entering the Golden Temple in Amritsar. Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure saw for over two years not only the PM, 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 on the functioning of Article 74 of the Constitution of India.
Zail Singh was the first Sikh and the first OBC to become Rashtrapati. Born in the family of a carpenter in the erstwhile princely state of Faridkot, he was named Jairnail Singh by his parents. He waged a relentless struggle against the ruler and was frequently jailed between 1940 and1947—this earned 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.
Before becoming the President, Zail Singh had served as Chief Minister of Punjab and Union Home Minister. The rise of Bhindranwale in Punjab was attributed by some to the official promotion of Sikh Panth by the Punjab government. Thus, when Operation Blue Star was executed by the Army, the President, who is deemed the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, was not informed. Indira Gandhi had customarily met the President for routine briefing which PMs do, a day before the Amritsar operation. Blue Star did not figure in the discourse.
The Akal Takht issued a notice the Zail Singh. There were demands from a section of Sikhs that he ought to resign. He chose to remain calm. The revolt of some troops of the Sikh Regiment had vitiated the environment. He told his close advisors that he did not wish to create a situation in which the Sikhs are driven to a corner. The Akal Takht issued him a notice. He sent a reply through his media aide, Tarlochan Singh, who managed to convince the clerics that Zail Singh had no role in Blue Star. The move to excommunicate him from the Panth was dropped. Eminent editor Khushwant Singh recorded in his column: “Tarlochan Singh has saved the President from being declared Tankhaiya”.
Post Operation Blue Star, Zail Singh’s presidency saw a major challenge when Andhra Pradesh Governor Thakur Ram Lal, apparently at behest of Congress, swore in the state’s Finance Minister, N. Bhaskar Rao as CM, while the CM, N.T. Ramarao (NTR) had gone to the US for a surgery. NTR, who with his Telugu Desam Party had defeated Congress in 1983, rushed back and brought 160 MLAs to Rashtrapati Bhavan as a show of strength. Zail Singh asked the Governor to reverse his act and also recommended Ram Lal’s dismissal. The next Governor of AP, Kumudben Joshi, too received a missive from the President, advising her “not to interfere in the state’s politics”. (The S.R. Bommai judgement, which determined that the floor of the Vidhan Sabha is the right place for trial of strength, came a decade later, in 1994.)
When Indira Gandhi was assassinated, Zail Singh was on a state visit to North Yemen. He immediately flew back from Sanaa. He had described the turn of events to this writer later: “Before leaving Sanaa I asked Secretary to the President, Ashoke Bandopadhyay, to pick up a copy of the Constitution from the Embassy. I studied the Constitution with his help and realised that while under Article 74 President is bound by the aid and advice of the Council of Ministers, Article 75 says that the PM shall be appointed by the President and ministers shall be appointed on advice of the PM. Thus, I realised that the only original power which President has is in choosing the PM, on being satisfied that the person enjoyed the support of the majority of MPs in Lok Sabha. I owed my position to Indiraji and I knew that she had desired her son to be her successor. The son she preferred, 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 communication and aviation communication was on—my thought process should not be disclosed over radio transmission. So, I waited. On reaching Delhi, I rushed to AIIMS. Rajivji was there. I put my hand on his shoulder and invited him to be sworn in as PM.”
History has it while Zail Singh drove from Palam to AIIMS, the President’s motorcade was stoned. The 1984 mayhem on Sikhs had broken out by then. Normally, the PM ought to have been sworn in after being elected by the Congress Party in Parliament (CPP). Zail Singh swore in Rajiv Gandhi without CPP nod. When Jawaharlal Nehru and Lal Bahadur Shastri had passed away in 1964 and 1966, the senior most member of the Cabinet, Gulzari Lal Nanda had held fort as acting PM. If this precedent was followed Pranab Mukherjee ought to have been sworn in the interim. That was not to be as Zail Singh was overcome by his emotion for Indira Gandhi.
Relationship between him and Rajiv Gandhi soured soon after. A week later, when a condolence meeting was held for Indira Gandhi, the President was excluded. After Rajiv Gandhi romped back with 400+ mandate, Rashtrapati Bhavan, which is located a few hundred yards away from South Block, the seat of PMO, became a distant land for the PM and his ministers. Customary briefing by PM was discontinued. Ministers did not respond to summons from the President. The government started sending Vice President R. Venkataraman on ceremonial trips abroad. Nearly 40 invitations received by Rashtrapati Bhavan from abroad went unanswered. Zail Singh is the least travelled President abroad—he undertook only four trips during his tenure. Taking cue from the political masters, the military too showed disdain: the Chief of Army Staff, K. Sundarji, started sending letters beginning with “Dear Rashtrapati”, instead of customarily addressing him as “Commander-in-Chief”, which as Supreme Commander of Armed Forces ordained by the Constitution, the President is entitled.
Zail Singh suspected that he was under surveillance. The visitors whom he wanted to confide in were taken for a walk in the Mughal Gardens where he chatted freely—he used to say rooms in Rashtrapati Bhavan were not safe for conversation. After Rajiv Gandhi became PM, the free access to PM House for ordinary workers, who were used to Indira Gandhi’s morning “durbar”, which was an open house, saw a change. Security had been beefed up. SPG had taken over. Reacting to this once Zail Singh told a visitor, “Andar maujan hi maujan, bahar faujan hi faujan (There is fun inside, troops are stationed outside)” while referring to PM House. “Andar Italians, bahar battalions”, he added. This was reported by intelligence and the chasm deepened.
In 1986, Zail Singh refused to sign on the dotted line. Article 74, as altered by 42nd and 44th amendments, entails that if the President is not satisfied by an aid or advice of the Council of Ministers he may seek clarification or modification and send it back once. Thereafter if the aid or advice is reverted back after consideration by the Council of Ministers the President is obliged to sign on the dotted line. The Indian Post Office (Amendment) Bill was passed by Parliament in 1986—it empowered the government to intercept all mail. Zail Singh, perhaps drawing inspiration from the US practice of “Pocket Veto” by President, did not refer it back for reconsideration—he just kept the file pending. As the file 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 hullabaloo which ensued Zail Singh’s “inaction”, gave a bad name to the Rajiv Gandhi regime. Later when the Bofors scandal broke in the penultimate months of the Zail Singh presidency, the Cabinet passed a resolution rejecting a missive from the Rashtrapati, who wanted to be briefed and had called for the file dealing with the contract.
Zail Singh was the first to extend official tribute to Subhas Chandra Bose. He invited his daughter Anita Pfaff and made her a state guest, hosting her in Rashtrapati Bhavan. This was nearly three decades prior to Narendra Modi ordering that all records related to Netaji be made public.
Relationship between Rajiv Gandhi and Zail Singh also soured as two important Indira-era Congressmen, Pranab Mukherjee and R. Gundu Rao, who had been sidelined post 1984, were regular visitors to Rashtrapati Bhavan. Zail Singh had not sworn in Pranab Mukherjee, while preferring Rajiv Gandhi, but their political relationship continued unabated. When Zail Singh’s centenary was observed in May 2016, Mukherjee as President presided over a grand function in Rashtrapati Bhavan.