The Indian President: An Insider’s Account of the Zail Singh Years (1982-87)KC Singh
312 pages|₹ 699
Giani Zail Singh (Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
AUTHORS ON POLITICAL personalities face a dual challenge. The first is to avoid a ‘kiss and tell’ approach, in favour of a sober narrative. The second, to adopt an objective stance towards its subject, and not a hagiographic one.
KC Singh, author of The Indian President: An Insider’s Account of the Zail Singh Years, spurns the above and chooses his own path. Deputy Secretary to the seventh president, Giani Zail Singh, he starts off on a breezy note with an intriguing premise in the Preface, namely, how the book came to be not written on three occasions. With a mix of insider gossip and anecdotal coverage, he hooks the reader’s attention. It transpires that each time, political considerations prevailed, thereby giving the lie to the popular notion that members of the Indian Foreign Service are insulated from political influence.
Just as the reader’s interest is piqued and one demands more of the same, the author makes an abrupt scholarly shift. The opening three chapters deal with the various roles of the President—in the political arena, as an arbiter, and in his diplomatic capacity. The author refers to academic sources, Constituent Assembly debates and Presidential correspondence to make the short point that the President’s role is not merely ornamental. A canny editor might have packaged these in an Annexure, as they are unlikely to interest the general reader.
Order is restored when Singh starts chronicling the turbulent years of Zail Singh’s Presidency. The Indira Gandhi period—1982-84—was marked by two tumultuous events—the Blue Star Operation in Punjab, and Indira Gandhi’s assassination, followed by anti-Sikh riots. These put Zail Singh between a rock and a hard place, as he had to balance his Constitutional obligations as President, with those as a leader of the Sikh community. To his credit, he refrained from taking any drastic action, correctly assessing that it would add fuel to the fire.
It was during the Rajiv Gandhi years—1984-87— that the President- Prime Minister relationship frayed beyond repair. The author details how normal practices were dispensed with. Chief Ministers no longer paid courtesy calls, top secret communications were withheld, and foreign visits by the President curtailed. Worse, Rajiv Gandhi as PM regarded Zail Singh as a country bumpkin and treated him with barely concealed contempt.
As a countervailing measure, the President began to hob-nob with assorted disaffected characters and even advised them on election strategies. This political manoeuvring is justified as payback for all the indignities and humiliations heaped on him. Perhaps the author does not realise that this reflects poorly on the conduct of the President, who occupies a non-partisan Constitutional post. It also is not befitting for the author to be the President’s foot-soldier in his political shenanigans. The Conduct Rules for Civil Servants enjoins them to be neutral, impartial and to never interfere in political matters.
The book hurtles to its climax, with the Bofors scandal holding centre-stage. Again, belying expectations of an explosive finale, the President-Prime Ministerial confrontation peters out into a tame stalemate. Matters ends, not with a bang, but with a whimper.
In conclusion, this is a serious work, eschewing sensationalism and key-hole reportage. However, when it comes to objectivity, the approach is that of a camp-follower. For the author, Zail Singh could do no wrong, while his opponents could do no right. This perspective leads to a one-sided telling of the tale.
The book is a mix of a personal memoir, a racy political thriller and a travelogue. The abrupt shifts from one to the other can, at times, be disruptive, making the whole smaller than its parts. Zig-zagging timelines further trip up the unwary reader. This book is a labour of love, which at times does risk losing the reader.