Millennium Post

Much heat and controversy

It is not for the first time that a presidential poll has generated so much heat. In fact, the presidential elections of 1950 and 1969 had kicked up bigger rows. But the difference between the earlier contests and the present one is that the 1950 and 1969 polls witnessed internal wrangling within the ruling Congress only. The Opposition was not involved.

The 1969 contest was so intense and serious that it culminated in the split of the Congress, Soon after India gained independence, Lord Mountbatten relinquished his charge and C Rajagopalachari, known as ‘Rajaji’ was appointed the first – and the last – Indian governor-general. By the end of 1949, the process of Constitution-making was nearing completion. It was resolved that the Constituent Assembly should be converted into the Parliament and that the governor-general should be re-designated as the president.

Pandit Nehru was of the view that after the governor-generalship becomes presidency, Rajagopalachari should retain the post. Rajaji was an urbane scholar, with whom the prime minister got along very well. However, Sardar Patel did not agree. His choice was Rajendra Prasad, who was close to him, and had a wider acceptance within the Congress party. Nehru had assured Rajaji that he would be the first president of India but much to his annoyance and embarrassment, Patel got the Congress rank-and-file to put forward Prasad’s name instead. And ultimately, Patel had his way and Prasad was elected president.

Later developments proved Nehru’s apprehensions about Rajendra Babu true. No doubt, Prasad was a great freedom fighter but he was somewhat conservative in so far as his views on various social and political issues were concerned. When Nehru decided to take radical measures to reform Hindu society and introduced the Hindu code bill, Prasad opposed it.

Both the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS launched a bitter campaign against the Hindu code bill. On 11 December 1949, the RSS organised a public meeting at the Ramlila grounds in Delhi where speaker after speaker condemned the bill. One called it the dropping of an ‘Atom Bomb’ on the Hindu society. Another likened it to the draconian Rowlett Act introduced by the British government. They predicted that the bill would bring down the Nehru government. But despite the opposition from within and outside the Congress, Nehru had his way and he ensured that the Hindu code bill became a law.

Another presidential poll that was marked by fierce controversy, took place in the year 1969. Zakir Hussain, a great freedom fighter and the third president of India, died suddenly after he fell down in the bathroom. Soon thereafter, search began for a new presidential incumbent. The powerful anti-Indira Gandhi clique of the Congress resolved to sponsor M Neelam Sanjiva Reddy for the highest post. But prime minister Indira Gandhi let it be known that Reddy was not her choice. Despite Gandhi’s opposition, Reddy’s name was approved by the Congress working committee.

But before the matter came up before the CWC, informal parleys were held in the party. Deputy prime minister Morarji Desai met Gandhi in order to know her choice; she suggested the name of Jagjivan Ram but Morarji rejected Jagjivan’s candidature. He told Gandhi that he would not be able to support Jagjivan Ram as he had not filed his income tax and wealth tax returns for the last eight years! Morarji writes in his auto-biography, ‘I was clearly of the opinion that [Jagjivan Ram] should not continue even in the ministry.

Ultimately, the question of Congress candidate came up before the parliamentary board. Indira Gandhi proposed the name of Jagjivan Ram and asserted that the majority was in his favour. But S K Patil differed with her and claimed that majority was in favour of Sanjiva Reddy. The Congress president Nijalingappa also said the same thing. Ultimately, opinion from every member was sought. The result was that three were in favour of Jagjivan Ram and five were for Sanjiva Reddy.’

After this began an intense battle between Gandhi and her opponents. Immediately after the parliamentary board declared Reddy as the Congress candidate, Gandhi took away the finance portfolio from Desai and kept it herself. This infuriated Desai who felt that he had been humiliated. Simultaneously, Gandhi also declared her determination to nationalise private banks and to stop the privy purses of former Rajas and Maharajas. These measures were opposed by the Reddy-supporter Congress leaders but were hailed by the common people.

Thus, in one stroke, she succeeded in portraying the Reddy supporters as anti-people. After taking these radical measures, she decided not to issue an appeal seeking votes for Reddy. Meanwhile, V V Giri filed his nomination.

After this, she was asked to explain her stand. And she announced that let the electors vote according to their con-science. And voters did vote according to their conscience and Giri became the president. Gandhi herself voted against her own party’s candidate.

Not only did the official Congress candidate lose the elections but the bitter electoral battle ultimately led to a split in the Congress.
Next Story
Share it