The Indian President: An Insider’s Account of the Zail Singh Years review- Truthful account of a tumultuous period

The Indian President: An Insider’s Account of the Zail Singh Years review- Truthful account of a tumultuous period

In the history of the Indian Presidency, the five years that Giani Zail Singh held the highest office in the country can be considered as the most tumultuous

AJ PhilipUpdated: Tuesday, May 09, 2023, 11:58 AM IST
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Book: The Indian President: An Insider’s Account of the Zail Singh Years

Author: K.C. Singh

Publisher: HarperCollins

Pages: 275

Price: `699

In the history of the Indian Presidency, the five years that Giani Zail Singh held the highest office in the country can be considered as the most tumultuous. As Deputy Secretary to the President, KC Singh had a ringside view of the developments unfolding on Raisina Hill. What’s more, he was himself a key player who punched above his weight. That is what makes this book a riveting account.

At no time had the President-Prime Minister relations plummeted to such a low depth as when Zail Singh and Rajiv Gandhi locked horns for reasons the author elaborately explains in this book. 

When Indira Gandhi chose her home minister to succeed Neelam Sanjeev Reddy, it surprised many because in popular perception, he did not have the necessary “gravitas”. 

His own statement that he was ready to sweep the floor if she commanded him to do so did not help matters. Few realised that he was a former chief minister of Punjab, who came up the hard way. 

As the author mentions, no home minister, including Amit Shah, held as many key portfolios as Zail Singh when he was the home minister, the only exception being Sardar Patel.

It would be a revelation for many that Zail Singh wanted to be the President and did a little bit of campaigning using the good offices of the Prime Minister’s secretary RK Dhawan, besides one of her close relatives. 

His own dream and Mrs Gandhi’s desire to curry favour with the Sikhs who were increasingly getting disenchanted with her policies converged to let him become the fifth President.

Yet, the coterie around her accepted his nomination only on the condition that he submit his undated letter of resignation, signed on the Rashtrapati Bhavan stationery. What the shrewd Sardarji did on becoming President was to discard all the stationery and change the typewriters so that, if needed, he could disown the letter.

The first occasion for Zail Singh to show his fealty to the Nehru-Gandhi family arose when following the assassination of Mrs Gandhi, he showed no hesitation in swearing in Rajiv Gandhi as the full-fledged prime minister, though the Congress had not formally elected him as her successor. 

Events in quick succession like the targeted killing of Sikhs in Delhi and Rajiv Gandhi’s assertion that it was natural for the earth to shake when a big tree fell embittered the President, particularly when he could not help his community which looked up to him for succour. 

Earlier, he felt like a bird in the gilded cage of Rashtrapati Bhavan when under Operation Blue Star the Akal Takht was bombarded, though, ironically, he was the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces.

For the young Rajiv Gandhi, a greenhorn in politics, who had a massive majority in Parliament which his mother and grandfather could only dream of, Zail Singh was a rustic who could speak only pidgin English. He

began to either ignore him or take him for granted with the result being the same — the President looking for an opportunity to hit back.

The burden of KC Singh’s song is that the oath of office of the President is different from that of the Prime Minister and it is like the one prescribed for the President of the USA. What he implies is that the President has a lot of residuary powers, though most who held the office took the easy line that they could only sign on the dotted line.

The book bears proof that a slighted President can be dangerous for a prime minister, however powerful he may be. Zail Singh was no less vindictive. He had a streak of nonchalance and who-cares-attitude in him as was manifest when he ignored Ms Gandhi and allowed NT Rama Rao to parade his MLAs before Rashtrapati Bhavan.

KC Singh tried to enumerate all the instances of how Rajiv Gandhi slighted him to justify Zail Singh’s retaliatory action. He showed no mercy to the scion of dynasty as he converted Rashtrapati Bhavan into a conspiratorial hub where Congress renegades like Vidya Charan Shukla and Kamalapati Tripathi egged on the President to dismiss him.

In the end, it was VP Singh’s reluctance to support Zail Singh’s bid to contest against Congress’ presidential candidate R. Venkataraman that forced him to make a hasty retreat.

The book is a pointer to how ego can blind a person to make moves that would have landed the nation in political quagmires from which there was no easy escape. Thank goodness, better counsel prevailed in the end and KC Singh returned to the Foreign Service from where he retired as secretary to write this honest account of his days at Rashtrapati Bhavan.

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