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All the prime minister’s men

For Jawaharlal Nehru the road to the first general elections,on which he was
very keen...
Written by Inder Malhotra | Published: April 17, 2009 12:28 am

For Jawaharlal Nehru the road to the first general elections,on which he was very keen,was not
clear even after the ouster of the “ obstreperous” Congress president,Purushottamdas Tandon.
The prime minister had yet to overcome strong opposition to some of his fundamental policies
from a more powerful source,the Republic’ s first president,Rajendra Prasad,who had served
earlier as president of the Constituent Assembly.
Differences between Nehru,the life and soul of the Congress leftwing that then included both
socialists and communists,and Prasad,a pillar of the party’ s rightwing,led by Vallabhabhai
Patel,went back a long time. These became acute at the time of Independence and Partition.
Prasad was not a revivalist like Tandon. He was also opposed to theocracy. But as an “ orthodox
Hindu” he wanted the Indian state to be “ symbolic of the Hindu majority” . Nehru would have
none of this,and began to believe that Prasad was “ less secular than even Patel” . No wonder
then that he did not want Prasad to be the president when India became a Republic. He therefore
brought C. Rajagopalachari (better know as Rajaji) to Delhi as governor-general when
Mountbatten left in June 1948. But there was a strong feeling against Rajaji within the Congress
party,especially regarding his opposition to the Quit India movement (1942-45). Rajaji was
therefore reluctant to join the race for presidency. Indeed,he astounded the prime minister by
suggesting that Nehru should become president and Patel prime minister.

Consequently,Nehru resorted to what he usually did under such circumstances. He wrote to


Prasad suggesting that he should decline the office of head of state. Prasad refused to oblige and
cleverly added that he left it to Nehru and Patel “ to edge me out” . Only then did it dawn on
Nehru that Patel,with his enormous influence in the party,was backing Prasad. Yet,curious are
the ways of Indian politics. At a later stage Prasad started having second thoughts. Patel taunted
him: “ This marriage is settled. But if the bridegroom wishes to run away,what can I do?”
So Prasad was duly elected president and the first clash between him and Nehru came even
before his swearing-in. He objected to the day — January 26 — fixed for the republic’ s
inauguration “ on astrological grounds” . Nehru’ s reply was stinging: “ I am afraid,I have no
faith in astrology and certainly I should not like to fix up national programmes according to the
dictates of astrologers.” (Incidentally,the date was chosen because it was the 20th anniversary of
the day the Indian National Congress had vowed to achieve full independence.)
Shortly thereafter,the president’ s insistence on inaugurating the rebuilt Somnath temple,against
the advice his prime minister,added to the friction between the two. Nehru believed the Somnath
project to be “ contrary to the concept of secularism” but he did not want to veto the
president’ s visit there either. His compromise therefore was that Prasad should go in his
personal capacity,not on behalf of the government. This meant that Prasad must pay for the
journey,which he did.
Though the two were always courteous to each other,the strain in their relations was sometimes
visible. On one occasion when the prime minister was going on a long foreign visit,the president
decided to set aside protocol and see him off. On receipt of this message,Nehru,already at
Palam,delayed his flight. But when much time elapsed and there was no sign of Prasad,the prime
minister asked the president’ s military secretary,“ Is he walking?”
It was the Hindu Code Bill,a legislation to reform the Hindu personal law,to which Nehru was
totally committed,that Prasad used as the most potent weapon against the prime minister,just as
Tandon had done. The number of Congress party members opposed to measure was also large
though they preferred not to be vocal. Consequently,the story of how the Hindu Code Bill was
first stalled and then passed piecemeal only after the election of the first Lok Sabha in 1952 is so
long and complex and involves so many characters,including the towering B.R. Ambedkar,that it
has to be told separately.
For the present,it would suffice to say that Prasad adroitly interlinked the Hindu Code Bill issue
with the president’ s powers. In September 1951,he informed Nehru that he wished to send a
message to Parliament stating his fundamental objections to the Hindu Code Bill. Nehru thought
that this would be unconstitutional. After consulting the attorney-general,M.C. Setalvad,who
came into the picture several times,Nehru replied to Prasad that he would resign “ if the
president insisted. I regret to say that the president attaches more importance to his astrologers
than to the advice of his Cabinet on some matters. I have no intention of submitting to the
astrologers.”
Similarly,with the attorney-general backing his stand to the hilt,Nehru disabused the president of
the notion that he,acting on his own and without the advice of the council of ministers,could
withhold assent from the Hindu Code Bill if it was passed.
When Prasad’ s tenure was due to end,Nehru was confident that he would be able to get Vice-
President Radhakrishnan elected president. He liked Radhakrishnan and intellectually the two
were on the same wavelength. Patel had been dead for seven years,and Nehru expected no
hindrance. He was stunned therefore when strong opposition came from his close friend and
colleague,Maulana Azad. The Maulana said that Prasad was a leader of the freedom
movement,but when “ I turn the pages of the movement’ s history I find no mention of
Sir Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan” . Nehru then argued that one term for the president was
enough,and that Prasad was getting on in years,in any case,Azad retorted: “ You and I are no
spring chickens,Jawaharlal. If Rajen Babu has to go,then we must also go.”
Nehru gave in,and Prasad got a second term that has been denied to all other presidents,although
each one of them wanted it and some tried hard to secure it. Come to think of it,of the 17 years
during which Nehru was prime minister,Prasad was president for no less than 12.
The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator