India's Pliant New President


REINFORCING MRS. GANDHI India's Pliant New President BY DARRYL D' MONTE New Delhi The election of Zail Singh as India's seventh President last July 12 was a foregone conclusion Presidents are...

...GANDHI India's Pliant New President BY DARRYL D' MONTE New Delhi The election of Zail Singh as India's seventh President last July 12 was a foregone conclusion Presidents are chosen here by the two houses of Parliament in New Delhi and by the state legislatures With Indira Gandhi's Congress (I) Party enjoying a huge majority in all these bodies, her nominee could not lose Nevertheless, the elevation of the 66-year old Sikh leader to what is nominally the highest office in the land reflects no credit on the Prime Minister and will not benefit the country His frequent faux pas have made him something of a laughing stock Recently, for instance, he lauded Adolf Hitler's talents as a national unifier An investigatory commission also found him guilty of corruption during his days as Chief Minister of Punjab Zail Singh's name carries the prefix "Giani " Although literally this means "knowledgeable one," it refers to his having been a homespun preacher prior to plunging into politics decades ago Before quitting to seek the Presidency he was Home Minister, a post he hardly filled with distinction His tenure was marked by a sudden outbreak of religious violence in his native state, not between Hindus and Moslems—who have often been at each other's throats since 1947—but Hindus and Sikhs The Sikh religion, a Hindu reform movement, emerged in northeast India in the late 15th century under the leadership of the revered Guru Nanak For the past several years, Congress and local leaders have been pandering to its strong chauvinist sentiments, allowing demands for an autonomous Sikh state called "Khalistan'' to gain ground When he was Chief Minister of Punjab—a tiny state, yet the richest in the union—Zail Singh failed to nip this separatism in the bud, and as Home Minister he cracked down on it too late Undoubtedly, one of the reasons Gandhi chose him was to assure the Sikh community that they were being "represented" in the national Administration Always the shrewdest of political tacticians, the Prime Minister may indeed have decided to kill two birds with one stone She is known to be unhappy with Zail Singh's handling of the Sikh agitation, and by pushing him upstairs she has freed the sensitive Home Ministry for someone more competent Gandhi could have tapped a worthier Sikh—say, Dhillon Singh or Swar-am Singh—for the Presidency But Zail Singh is still a force in Sikh politics, and given the persistently turbulent atmosphere in Punjab, she opted not to risk alienating him The other major factor in his favor is his unabashed sycophancy He is reported to have declared, without batDarrm d'Monte frequently writes on Indian altairs for The New Leader ting an eyelash, "If my leader had said that I should pick up a broom and be a sweeper, I would have done that She chose me to be President "Asked what would happen if while in office he might have to take a stand against the Congress(I), heresponded "Therewill never be any such situation Why should I think of such unpleasant things'' Indira Gandhi in the true sense is a great woman and is the greatest democrat in the country—she will never let such a situation arise " The joint opposition front tried its best to embarrass Gandhi and foil Zail Singh's ascendancy to the Rashtrapati Bhavan, the Presidential residence that used to be the British Viceroy's palace They called upon the Pnme Minister to join them in selecting a "consensus" candidate, insisting this would be the honorable way to fill a titular position in a parliamentary state The harmless sounding proposal was an unveiled reference to the 1969 Presidential election, when Gandhi bared her fangs for the first time and split the Congress by pushing her protege, the aging labor leader V V Gin, over San-jiva Reddy, the choice of the old party bosses Gandhi's faction won, leaving her to climb to the pinnacle of popularity in 1971, the year India liberated Bangladesh from Pakistan After being ousted from power in 1977 following 18 months of "national emergency" rule, she did agree to a consensus Presidential candidate, ironically enough the same Reddy In nominating him for the five-year term, Mor-arji Desai's victorious Janata Party saw itself as redressing one of the wrongs of 1969 The man put forward by the opposition in 1982 was H R Khanna, a respected former judge of the Supreme Court whom the media referred to as the "sacrificial goat " He came into the limelight in 1977 when he resigned to protest the appointment of M H Beg as the Chief Justice of India The news magazine India Today observed "Khanna earned the image of a crusader by his judicial pronouncements upholding civil and human rights During the emergency, Khanna gave an adverse judgment [to the Congress Party], striking down various provisions of the Maintenance of Internal Security Act " Despite his disagreements with Gandhi, Khanna has steadfastly refused to join any party—a stance that surely should have made him preferable to Zail Singh Indira Gandhi's rejection of a consensus candidate showed again that she is impervious to the necessity of protecting democratic institutions from encroachments by the ruling party True, the Constitution mandates that the President act on the advice of the Council of Ministers, where the Prime Minister is first among equals This does not mean, however, that he should be a rubber stamp In June 1975 the weak President Fakhruddin Ah Ahmed signed the decree that imposed Gandhi's state of emergency Only after the brutal demolition of the slums and forced sterilization of thousands of the poor was he said to have developed qualms, and then at least partly because some of the worst measures were inflicted on his own Moslem community Rumor has it that before he died in February 1977 (with the tyranny still very much in force), Ahmed expressed deep misgivings about his action in a personal diary His widow has never made the much sought-after document public A responsible President can always refer a bill back to the Council of Ministers for reconsideration In the event of a confrontation involving a matter of conscience, his one honorable course is to step down Unfortunately, few of India's Presidents have been made of such stern stuff—though to be fair, it should be said that not until Indira Gandhi came to dominate the political scene was this ever called for The question of the role of the Presidency takes on a more sinister complexion in the light of the fact that until recently Gandhi was weighing an attempt to replace the parliamentary system with a "Presidential" one Feelers about this were sent out through the now discredited former Maharashtra Chief Minister, A R Antulay, and other camp followers The reason for thinking of this radical change, the Prime Minister suggested, was that Parliament and, even more, the courts often thwart government plans for land reform and other policy initiatives While this has sometimes been the case, the courts also are the sole safeguard today against an unbridled executive The problem with Gandhi, moreover, is not too little power, it is too much in the wake of her massive victory at the polls in 1980 She would like to pack the Supreme Court and the state High Courts with judges who bend at her will So far, the jurists have proved men of steel The framers of India's Constitution fondly imagined that after independence the Congress Party would lose its all-embracing image and a strong opposition would emerge Events have proved otherwise Although the opposition parties agree on minimum programs, they have never been able to coalesce into a well-functioning government At present, they are held together merely by their antagonism to the Prime Minister This focus is on Gandhi personally because she—not her party—is the source of power But she has not exhibited any sign of knowing what to do with it There are no indications of a new economic thrust similar to the one she advanced in 1969 Instead, she seems obsessed exclusively with expanding her authority and transferring it to her surviving son, Rajiv Having been brought into the political arena two years ago, he has thus far failed to fill the vacuum created by the accidental death of his notorious younger brother, Sanjay And at present he is being upstaged by Sanjay's rebellious widow, Maneka The young woman, who quit the family home after a well publicized spat with her mother-in-law, has taken to campaigning against dynastic politics Gandhi's own vacillation plus Maneka's troublesome activities make a sudden turn to a Presidential system unlikely Meanwhile, in Zail Singh the Prime Minister has at least one reliable puppet for the next five years...

Vol. 65 • August 1982 • No. 15

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