Mohandas K. Gandhi was no fan of the pomp and pageantry of Viceroy’s House (now Rashtrapati Bhavan). He would rather have converted it into a hospital. However, his views would change—as Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins note in their celebrated book Freedom At Midnight—upon seeing the transformation of Viceroy’s House into a centre for managing the murderous migration that Partition had unleashed. He declared to Louis Mountbatten, the first governor general of independent India: “Here is where India is governed from. This is the sanctuary in the storm. We must keep it up and all your successors must live here."

While much of the colonial-era glory still remains, Rashtrapati Bhavan today is definitely not the place India is governed from. It houses the president, who serves as the titular head of the government of India and acts on the advice of the council of ministers. The power of the indirectly elected president increases suddenly when there is no leader who enjoys a clear majority in the lower house of Parliament. It is in those moments that Rashtrapati Bhavan is supposed to be “the sanctuary in the storm". But those are also the times when the president’s assertive—and possibly partisan—behaviour may raise questions of propriety and constitutionality. Later this month, Rashtrapati Bhavan will welcome a new president; this is an appropriate occasion to briefly revisit the history of the office.

Presidents have been criticized for two contrasting sins: 1) being a rubber stamp for the government of the day, and 2) exploiting constitutional ambiguities to exercise greater influence than their position warrants. The most egregious example of the first trait was president Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed (1974-77) signing prime minister Indira Gandhi’s Proclamation of Emergency on the night of 25 June 1975. The sycophancy of president Zail Singh (1982-87) knew no bounds; after being nominated by Indira Gandhi, he said: “If she hands me a broom I shall start sweeping the floor." While the president has the power to return the cabinet’s recommendation at least once for reconsideration—he/she is bound to give assent to the reconsidered recommendation with or without any change—not many chose to exercise it for a long time when the Central governments routinely abused their powers to dismiss unfriendly state governments.

The behaviour on the other side of the spectrum—presidents asserting their own powers under questionable pretexts—did increase in the coalition era (1989-2014), when no single party could boast of a comfortable majority in the Lok Sabha. The tenure of K.R. Narayanan (1997-2002) was especially eventful. Narayanan won praise for becoming the first president in 1997 to return the I.K. Gujral government’s recommendation to impose president’s rule in Uttar Pradesh but he also courted controversy for giving speeches and interviews which could be legitimately interpreted as criticism of the policies of the succeeding Atal Bihari Vajpayee government. In another instance, Narayanan chose the state banquet held in the honour of visiting US president Bill Clinton to criticize Washington for behaving like a “headman" of the “global village".

The role of presidents has come under special scrutiny at times of transition between governments. Singh’s decision to invite Rajiv Gandhi to take over as prime minister after Indira Gandhi’s assassination was seen as firm leadership by some and as an overreach by others. President Neelam Sanjiva Reddy (1977-82) calling fresh elections on the advice of Charan Singh, a prime minister who had himself not won the trust vote in the Lok Sabha, was seen by several observers as an attempt by the former to increase his own powers as the election was expected to return a hung house. In different accounts, admittedly with little evidence, both president S. Radhakrishnan (1962-67) and president R. Venkataraman (1987-92) have been accused of planning to get themselves into the prime minister’s seat.

The confusion regarding the scope of presidential powers is as old as the office of the president itself. India’s first president, Rajendra Prasad (1950-62), often used to complain—as Fali Nariman writes in his book The State Of The Nation—“to Minoo Masani, his friend and a compatriot in the Constituent Assembly, that (Jawaharlal) Nehru did not allow him to exercise the powers which he was sure he had under the document they together had got passed in the Constituent Assembly".

Most of the doubts Prasad had were cleared in the years that followed but some constitutional questions still remain. In a chapter on “The Presidency" in Rethinking Public Institutions In India (edited by Devesh Kapur, Pratap Bhanu Mehta and Milan Vaishnav), James Manor notes that a decision taken by the incumbent President Pranab Mukherjee (2012-present) in January 2017 could have triggered a constitutional crisis had the Narendra Modi government decided to confront him. Mukherjee commuted the death sentence of four convicts against, apparently, the reiterated advice of the Union ministry of home affairs. He was possibly influenced by a 2014 Supreme Court ruling that allows for commutation of death sentence if a mercy petition has faced inordinate delays.

The constitutional ambiguities allow “the sanctuary in the storm" to turn into—in H.N. Pandit’s words—a “quiescent volcano". The next incumbent should be ready to navigate similarly tricky situations.

Should the president be allowed greater flexibility in uncertain times? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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