republic day

How Rajendra Prasad (and not Rajaji) became India’s first president

The selection was preceded by a fierce political contest between Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel.

The date 26 January, 1950, heralded in many changes for India as its newly minted constitution was pressed into service. One of those changes was that the country ceased to be a constitutional monarchy, with the British King as head of state, and became a republic. This meant that the representative of the British Crown, the governor-general, would have to give way to a president. On that date, therefore, the last governor-general of India, C Rajagopalachari, swore in Rajendra Prasad as President of the Republic of India.

This passing of the baton, while smooth in outward appearance, was actually preceded by a fierce political tug of war, as Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Home Minister Vallabhbhai Patel jostled for influence within the government.

Tale of two candidates

By mid-1949, the constitution-making process was drawing to a close and the need to choose a president, to act as head of the new republican state, was looming. For this post, Nehru preferred Rajagopalachari, a scholar-politician from Madras. Rajaji, as he was fondly called, was already governor-general at the time and appointing him president would involve nothing more than a change of title.

Patel, though, had other ideas and supported Bihar Congressman Rajendra Prasad instead. To some extent, this split was driven by ideology. Rajaji and Nehru agreed with each other on the type of secularism India should follow, an idea Patel did not quite buy into: the Sardar would once call Rajaji “half a Muslim” and Nehru “the Congress’ only nationalist Muslim” (the latter was also a backhanded dig at Abul Kalam Azad). Rajaji had also, back in the day, opposed and eventually dissociated himself from the Quit India Movement, a fact that rankled with many Congressmen.

Patel’s choice, Rajendra Prasad, was like him a social conservative. As president, Prasad would bitterly oppose Nehru’s Hindu Code Bills, which gave women greater rights. He would also help rebuild the Somnath Temple, after the Sardar’s death. His most interesting clash with Nehru though was over the very date of Republic Day: Prasad wanted it moved because he thought the day to be astrologically inauspicious.

Mostly, however, this clash was nothing but your garden-variety political turf war and was driven by Patel’s desire to put a check on Nehru’s power. A year later, Patel would even manage to push his own candidate as Congress President, tartly remarking: “At the time of Rajen babu’s election he [Nehru] got a slap in the face. This is the second.”

Patel outmanoeuvres Nehru

His decision made, Patel privately communicated his support to Prasad. He did not, however, publicly reveal his hand, preferring to bide his time.

Rash and impetuous, with characteristic disdain for the nitty-gritty, Nehru preferred to take a more direct and ultimately imprudent approach. With murmurs swirling around in the Congress of Prasad’s candidature, Nehru wrote directly to him on 10 September 1949, expressing the opinion that “Rajaji might continue as president” and Prasad was not welcome since “it would involve a change and consequent rearrangements”.

Privately supported by Patel, Prasad wrote back, belligerent, refusing to bow out of the race. Publicly, however, Patel kept his cards close to his chest. In his communication with Nehru, Patel gave the impression that he did not have a dog in this fight, telling him that is was for Nehru to “deal with the situation now”, giving off the impression that he would back him. Blithely unaware of what was going on behind the scenes, Nehru kept on writing to Patel complaining about “vigorous canvassing [that] has taken place on this subject and there is a large majority who favour Rajendra Babu”.

On 5 October, Nehru called a meeting of Congress MPs to decide the matter. As he proposed Rajaji’s name for president, his words were loudly interrupted by the MPs present. Given Nehru’s stature and his standing, this was quite astonishing. Disoriented by the intensity of opposition, Nehru turned to Patel for support and, of course, at that crucial moment, the Sardar played his hand: he did not back Nehru. Stunned by this turn of events, Nehru stopped his speech and sat down as MP after MP attacked Rajaji’s candidature. The meeting had all but wrecked Rajaji’s chances of becoming president. It had also deeply embarrassed Nehru – in public. So much so that Nehru threatened to resign, the first of many such threats (a tactic our current Prime Minister also seems to be warming to).

History repeats itself

Interestingly, an almost identical situation was played out more than 50 years later at the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Goa conclave of 2002. At Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s behest, Narendra Modi was to resign as chief minister of Gujarat in the aftermath of the 2002 pogrom. Till the conclave started, Vajpayee was led on to believe that he had LK Advani’s backing on the matter. In the background, however, Advani had organised a coup. Dramatically, during the conclave itself, key BJP members vociferously refused to force Modi to resign as a shocked and isolated Vajpayee looked on. That parallels are often drawn between Nehru and Vajpayee on the one hand and Patel and Advani on the other make this anecdote all the more delicious: a rather exacting case of history repeating itself.

Back to 1949: seeing that he had been outmanoeuvred, a desperate Nehru exchanged the stick for the carrot. He tempted Prasad first with the chairmanship of the Planning Commission and then the presidentship of the Congress, but Prasad did not bite.

Defeated, Rajaji announced his retirement. Later on he would be inducted into the Cabinet as a Minister without Portfolio and, after Patel’s death, he would go on to become the Home Minister.

After swearing in Prasad as president, Rajaji wrote him a congratulatory letter wishing him “strength and support”. While Rajaji must obviously have been smarting at these turn of events which forced him to become a martyred pawn in a Nehru-Patel battle, he was above complaining directly about it. In his typical wry humour though, he ended the letter to Prasad with a postscript: “Please show this to Jawaharlal and Vallabhbhai. I am not writing separately to them.”

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