It has always been in the nature of the Congress to ensure that the entire process of electing the President be mired in uncertainty, one-upmanship, official confusion and rumour-mongering. Anirban Ganguly recalls an instance from the early days of the republic.
The entire second half of 1949 saw an intense exchange of letters between key players in the presidential election — Jawaharlal Nehru, Rajendra Prasad, Rajagopalachari and Sardar Patel wrote to each other setting a pattern that would become the norm rather than the exception. It would be interesting, in the current scenario to briefly revisit that phase.
It all began in May 1949 when a faction of the Rajasthan Congress opposed to Hiralal Shastri accused him of canvassing in favour of Prasad through his paper Lokvani. The faction dispatched the paper to Rajagopalachari seeking his intervention.
This was followed by a report in the irreverent Blitz which stated that ‘even before constitution-making is complete, informal private canvassing has already begun among the Constituent Assembly members regarding the choice of the provisional president of India.’
It said that the two groups were planning to mobilise public opinion in a big way without coming into the open and by ‘enrolling press support in favour of their respective candidates.’ It also revealed that two stalwarts — Patel and Nehru — were in favour of Rajaji who was ‘spreading his roots all-over the place.’
Rajaji reacted by asking Patel to reign in the press and ‘induce Rajen-babu to do something to prevent this kind of gossip.’ Acceding to Sardar’s wishes Prasad issued a statement saying that he deprecated discussing ‘individuals in connection with such a high post’ and that ‘there is, and there can be no rivalry between Rajaji and myself for any post or honour.’ He warned the public not to indulge in nor be misled by such propaganda.
However, to Sardar, a miffed Prasad wrote that there was no allegation against him in the report. The allegations, if any, were against three parties: the canvassing members of the CA, ‘you and Jawaharlalji who are said to be supporting one’, and finally one of the ‘so-called contestants.’
Enter Jawaharlal Nehru, who then wrote to Sardar deploring the possibility of a contest and argued that Rajaji should continue for the interim period as president as this would entail least change and difficulty. What set the spark was Nehru’s hand-written confidential letter to Prasad where he argued that a contested election for this brief period between two ‘top-ranking colleagues would be most unfortunate’ and that pushing out Rajaji at this stage would ‘be almost a condemnation of his work.’
Nehru’s cavalier approach to the issue seemed to have deeply hurt Prasad who wrote back that he had never put himself up as a candidate and therefore there could no question of a contest between Rajaji and himself. What hurt Prasad most was that he was not shown ‘even the courtesy of consultation’ in the matter.
Prasad also made a fundamental point in his answer to Nehru, regarding the latter’s argument against change and rearrangement. ‘It is not clear’ wrote Prasad, ‘why change and rearrangement in this respect should be avoided, when the whole Constitution under which we have so long worked is going to change, when the assembly, which has prepared the Constitution is going to be dissolved and re-elected One would have thought that all this meant a much greater change and rearrangement than any involved in the election of a person to the post of the President of the Republic created under the new Constitution in the place of the Governor-General appointed by the King of England.’
Patel wrote to Prasad meanwhile hoping that the matter could be settled in the ‘best manner possible with the least amount of controversy and with maximum goodwill and amity.’
Nehru continued with pressing the issue and refused to see the writing on the wall in favour of Prasad and complained to Patel that ‘very active and vigorous canvassing’ was going on and that ‘there is a large majority who favour Rajendra-babu.’ He was surprised that Prasad was getting support across regional and linguistic divides.
‘There was a deliberate effort to keep Rajaji out.’ Patel replied that the ‘whole atmosphere stinks in my nostrils and I wonder to what depths of intrigues and maneuverings we have lowered ourselves.’
By now Prasad, fed up with the entire game, retreated to Wardha. Nehru made a final bid to dissuade Prasad from the presidency. In an emotionally charged letter he offered Prasad the posts of Congress president or chairman of the proposed Planning Commission and expressed his distress at the cracking up ‘with great rapidity, of the noble structure that Bapu built.’
The Congress, he lamented, ‘was simply fading away before our eyes. Even a fading might have been tolerated, but something worse is happening. There is no discipline left, no sense of common effort, no co-operation, no attempt at constructive effort’ the energies were concentrated only in ‘disruption and destruction.’
There was thus only one option, either one of them — Rajaji or Prasad — should make a declaration opting out.
After months of battering, Prasad finally stood his ground. ‘None can say’, he wrote back, ‘certainly I cannot say, that my election as president of the Congress or of the republic will help in arresting the disintegration that we all deplore. For some reason or other — justified or wholly wrong — there is considerable opinion among the members of the assembly who insist on my accepting the presidentship of the Republic’ and such support even came from persons unconnected with the assembly or its politics.
‘The inference that I draw from this is that the election of Rajaji will not be smooth even if I were to withdraw and propose his name’ such a move, Prasad warned, may actually accelerate this process of disintegration.
Prasad was also right when he referred, in the same letter, to Nehru’s homily on disintegration of the Congress edifice that ‘Bapu built.’ The fault, he argued, lay with the leaders and showed ‘how skin-deep our attachment to the principles which we have mouthed so loudly and our loyalty to Bapu whose name we are never tired of invoking have been.’
A disintegrating edifice could hardly be expected to respect constitutional propriety and evolve a noble set of precedents. The Congress continues with its habit of forcing the presidential race into a murky haze of intrigue!