Dr. Rajendra Prasad, the President of the Constituent Assembly, had categorically said during discussion in the Constituent Assembly, that the President of India would be merely a constitutional head without wielding any real executive powers. But in 1960, Dr. Prasad, then the President of India, started a big controversy when he said that there was no provision in the Indian constitution which made it obligatory for the President to be bound by the advice of the Cabinet.
Those who believed that the President was the real executive head of the country and that he was potentially very powerful were encouraged to strongly argue their point of view by the observation of Dr. Rajendra Prasad, made in 1960. But others continued to maintain that the President was a figurehead and that he was bound by the advice of the Cabinet.
Those who thought that the President of India was akin to American President argued that like the American President, he had a fixed term of office and that he was not accountable to the national legislature, that is, the Parliament.
But others pointed out that the American President was directly elected by the people while the President of India was indirectly elected. They also argued that in India there was a Council of Ministers to aid and advise the President (Article 74) and that the Council of Ministers, being members of the Parliament, were responsible to it. But in the United States of America, the so-called Cabinet members (Secretaries) are not members of the Congress and they are not responsible to it.
They are accountable only to the President of their country. It was further contended that the framers of the Indian constitution had created only a titular President. Dr. Ambedkar had observed, “Under our constitution the President occupies the same position as the King under the English constitution. He is the head of the State but not of the Executive. He represents the nation, but does not rule the nation.”
The whole controversy about the Indian President, however, apparently came to an end in 1976 with the enactment of the 42nd Amendment which said, the President shall, in the exercise of his functions, act in accordance with the advice of the Council of Ministers.
In other words, the President is bound by the advice tendered by the Cabinet on behalf of the Council of Ministers. However, according to the 44th Amendment of 1978, the President may ask the Council of Ministers to reconsider its advice. But he shall act in accordance with the advice given after such reconsideration.
However, even after the passage of the 42nd Amendment in 1976 and the 44th Amendment in 1978, there are certain grey areas about the powers of the President and about his equation with the Cabinet. Is the President bound by the advice of the Cabinet which has lost majority support in the Lok Sabha? Is he bound to accept the advice of the Prime Minister to dissolve the Lok Sabha even after he has been defeated in the Lok Sabha?
If the President has no option but to accept the improper advice of a defeated Prime Minister to dissolve the Lok Sabha, then India does not have the system of Cabinet Government as it prevails in Britain.
The President of India is thus more akin to the British Monarch than to the American President. He is only the constitutional head while the Council of Ministers is the real head of the Union Executive. But this does not mean that the President is just a rubber-stamp or a ceremonial figurehead. In certain situations the President’s position becomes crucial. He applies his discretion where the constitution is either silent or not explicit.
Such a situation arose in 1979 when the Janata Party government headed by Morarji Desai resigned because of its fear that it had lost majority in the Lok Sabha. The then President N. Sanjeev Reddy invited Y.V. Chavan, the leader of the Congress Party in the Lok Sabha, to form government within four days. When Chavan declined the offer, the President asked Morarji Desai and Charan Singh to submit the lists of their supporters in the Lok Sabha.
After examining the two lists submitted by Desai and Singh, President Reddy invited Singh to form government. This power of the President to invite one of the contenders to form government when no political party enjoys absolute majority in the Lok Sabha is very important. It has immense constitutional and political significance. Another discretionary power of the President is to appoint a caretaker government, after the preceding government lost majority in the Lower House, till the new election to Lok Sabha is held, leading to the formation of a new government.
A new controversy has arisen after the revelation made by R.Venkatraman, the former President, in his memoirs that in June 1987, when he was the Vice-President, he was approached by a senior Congress M.P. to accept his proposal, blessed by the then President Gyani Zail Singh and supported by 240 MPs of the Lok Sabha.
The proposal was that President Zail Singh would dismiss the Rajiv government, then mired in the Bofors scandal, and appoints R.Venkatraman as the new Prime Minister. Venkataraman did not agree to this proposal and President Zail Singh’s plan to dismiss the Rajiv Gandhi government, then enjoying absolute majority in the Lok Sabha, was not materialized.
This controversy has two sides. Many deplore the design of President Zail Singh to dismiss the Rajiv government which had the support of the majority of the members of the Lok Sabha. They argue that the President of a Parliamentary democracy has no right to dismiss a government having majority support in the popular house. The dismissal of Rajiv government by President Zail Singh would have amounted to a ‘constitutional coup.’
But some others would argue that in developed democracies, the government, and hit by a major corruption scandal like the Bofors Scandal, would have resigned or would have been forced to resign. In the face of such a national crisis, generated by the Bofors controversy, the President of India, it is argued, should not remain idle. The dismissal of
Rajiv government by President Zail Singh would have certainly raised a big controversy. Questions would have been raised about the legality of President’s action – dismissing a government enjoying majority support in the Lok Sabha – and its impact on India’s democracy.
Jawaharlal Nehru once said that the President of India is “a man of great authority and dignity.” There is no doubt that the President enjoys immense prestige and that he is a man of great dignity. But how much authority he enjoys would depend upon his personality, skill, experience, equation with the Prime Minister, his political background and situations which arise from time to time.