What India's Presidents have brought to the table
While the role is considered ceremonial, Presidents can act independently. As Murmu is set to take charge, two past presidents’ terms – KR Narayanan, R Venkataraman – hold key lessons.
It is virtually certain that the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) candidate for President, Droupadi Murmu, will be elected in the July 18 presidential elections. If she does, the former governor of Jharkhand will be the first member of a Scheduled Tribe (ST) and only the second woman to hold that high office. We need to consider what awaits her, and India — and one interesting aspect of this choice.
The President’s role is usually largely ceremonial. They are the head of State, but not the head of government — a job that belongs to the prime minister (PM). In nearly all circumstances, the President merely acts on the advice of the council of ministers which, under PM Narendra Modi’s radically centralised system, means the PM.
There are, however, two occasions when a President can act independently. First, after a national election or when a ruling party has lost its majority in the Lok Sabha, the President decides whom to invite to form a government. Second, if a sitting PM asks for an early dissolution of Parliament to force a snap election, the President may risk controversy either by refusing (something that has never happened) or by agreeing when that appears to many onlookers to be unjustified.
Each of these two types of independent presidential action has caused heated dissension only once — both in the same year, 1979. First, amid disarray within the ruling Janata Party, President Neelam Sanjiva Reddy provoked a storm of criticism by summoning Charan Singh to form a government when other candidates appeared more plausible. Then, Reddy stoked further outrage by accepting Charan Singh’s request for a dissolution of Parliament — even though the latter appeared to lack the authority to ask this because he had failed to muster a Lok Sabha majority.
At other times, India has been spared such disruptions, partly because for most of its post-Independence history, one party or alliance has won a clear parliamentary majority. At such times, Presidents have had little choice about whom to summon. For most of the period up to 1989 (apart from the Janata years), the Congress was dominant. Between 2004 and 2014, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) had enough seats to be the inevitable invitee to form a government, and since 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been dominant.
However, between 1989 and 2004, no party was able to dominate. So, in that quarter century, Presidents had opportunities to act more assertively. Some restrained themselves, but others became more proactive — most notably KR Narayanan (President, 1997-2002), but also on one occasion, R Venkataraman (President 1987-1992).
In no case did that affect invitations to form governments or decisions about dissolutions. Narayanan ignited controversies by questioning a request for the imposition of President’s Rule in Uttar Pradesh in 1998, the content of his Independence Day speech in the same year, and by asking the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government to prove that it had a Lok Sabha majority in 1999. Most other Presidents have carefully avoided such action, in part because they were conscious of their roles as symbols and sources of national unity, although disagreements have emerged under several Presidents over mercy petitions.
Venkataraman operated more subtly. He disapproved of a postal bill that Parliament under then PM Rajiv Gandhi had passed because he believed that by empowering state and central governments to intercept, detain, or dispose of any items in the post that were seen to endanger national security, the bill compromised fundamental freedoms. His predecessor, Zail Singh, also withheld assent from the bill without sending it back to ministers, partly for the same reasons, and partly because he was at odds with Rajiv Gandhi. Venkataraman quietly continued to take no action until the 1989 national election brought in a non-Congress government, which allowed the bill to lapse.
Venkataraman’s actions — or rather, inaction — on the postal bill reminds us of another important aspect of presidential powers which needs to be understood, now that Murmu is set to be elected. Bills passed by Parliament only become laws after they receive the formal assent of the President who is required by the Constitution to act on the “advice” of the council of ministers. But — and it is a potentially important but — when a President has doubts or concerns, they are also empowered to return a bill, which is not a money bill, to the council of ministers with questions or suggestions for amendments. If ministers return the bill, unchanged, to the President, then they are formally required to assent to it.
As we see in the case of the postal bill, Presidents may also exercise informal powers in another way. If they disagree with formal “advice” from ministers to assent to a bill, they can choose to take no action — neither giving assent nor referring a bill back to ministers for further advice which would compel assent. So, the bill is shelved. This rather drastic step is often called a pocket veto. It might create serious controversy, but since nothing actually happens, it tends not to attract much public attention.
A full-scale constitutional crisis would certainly arise if a President went even further by refusing to give assent after ministers have reiterated their advice. That has never happened and remains highly unlikely. But in an interview after his retirement, Venkataraman stated that if a President is asked to do something against the Constitution, even reiterated advice may not be binding.
These points are worth recalling now because in 2017, as governor, Murmu refused to give her assent to a bill presented to her by a BJP state government. It amended two existing laws, and in her view, it undermined the STs’ hard won rights by making their land available for commercial use. She sent the bill back to the assembly with questions about how it could be seen as benefiting tribal welfare. This embarrassed the government in that tribal-dominated state, and the bill was dropped.
At the time some analysts speculated that it contributed to her not being named the 2017 presidential nominee of the NDA. But as 2022 showed, it didn’t diminish the high regard in which she was and is held by PM Modi, and the BJP leadership.
On that occasion, Murmu was not a rubber stamp governor. That suggests the possibility — however remote — that, as President, she will also not be one. That may appear to be unlikely, not least because the current BJP government understands her strong commitment to tribal welfare and would avoid sending her bills that damage it. But, at the very least, her resolute action as governor suggests that she will approach the task with an independent mind.
James Manor is a professor in the School of Advanced Study, University of London. He is the author of numerous books including Power, Poverty and Poison: Disaster and Response in an Indian City (1993) on the 1981 illicit liquor disaster in Karnataka
The views expressed are personal