Presidents of India

views updated


PRESIDENTS OF INDIA Article 52 of the Constitution of India defines India's president as the formal head of state and the supreme commander of the armed forces. Since the Indian parliamentary system is modeled along the lines of the British parliamentary system, the role of India's president parallels that of the crown in Britain. An unusual aspect of the Indian Constitution, however, is Article 53, whereby Parliament has the authority to confer the powers and functions exercised by the president upon any other authority.

The president must be a citizen of India but, unlike the U.S. president, he or she does not have to be born in India. Unlike the hereditary king or queen of Britain, the president of India is elected indirectly by a complex electoral college system consisting of single and multiple votes assigned to members of both houses of India's Parliament (MPs), and members of the lower houses of the state legislative assemblies (MLAs), with the proviso that total votes cast by MLAs do not exceed the total multiple votes cast by MPs. The president is elected to serve a five-year term, with the possibility of several renewals, although no president has served more than two five-year terms. In case of the president's death or incapacitation, the vice-president serves as acting president until a new president is elected. Political rivalries among the parties tend to determine new nominations.

While the Indian president is the nominal executive head of the state and commander of the armed forces, actual executive power is exercised by the prime minister of India and his or her appointed council of ministers. According to Article 74 of the Constitution, the prime minister and council of ministers will "aid and advise the President who shall, in exercise of his functions, act in accordance with such advice."

However, the power of the Indian presidency rises when no political party is able to form a government in national elections, and there is no consensus among them in forming a coalition government, or when there are rival coalition groups seeking to form the government. This problem has been more acute in the politically unstable Indian states. Under these circumstances, "President's Rule" is imposed on the state by the president, acting on the advice of the prime minister. Under similar circumstances at the central level, when no prime minister and cabinet exist to advise him, the president must make independent judgments in forming the government. Such a situation usually occurs just after a general election in which no party gained a majority, or following a parliamentary vote of no-confidence in the government.

The nomination of the president follows certain norms that allow for the presidency to shift between the linguistic Indo-Aryan northern states and the Dravidian southern states, with a preference for the southern minority. This is interspersed by the periodic nomination of minority religious and low caste groups. As of 2005, India has had four presidents from the North, including two Muslims and one Sikh, and seven presidents from the South, including one Muslim and one member of the Dalits (formerly called "untouchables"). There has been no Christian president, although Christians are the third-largest religious group after Hindus and Muslims.

The unwritten practice, until the nomination and election of A. P. J. Abdul Kalam to the presidency in 2002, has been for the ruling vice president to be proposed as the next president, especially if the president died in office or has completed his five-year term. All the presidents of India except Zail Singh, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, and Abdul Kalam, were vice presidents before becoming presidents. Note that all three non–vice presidential nominations were from religious minorities. The first two were brought in by the Congress governments to accommodate Muslim and Sikh political sentiments. The reasons underlying the appointment of Abdul Kalam instead of Vice President Krishan Kant, a long-time Congress Party member, were political. During the intense rivalry between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Congress in 2002, the ruling BJP coalition chose to depart from this usual practice, since the ruling vice president had been nominated and elected by the previously ruling Congress Party.

In 2002 the Christian governor of Maharashtra, P. C. Alexander, a native of Kerala, was proposed by the Hindu nationalist BJP and other nationalist parties as the next president to follow K. R. Narayanan, a Dalit who was also from Kerala. But this candidate was ruled out in favor of Abdul Kalam, a Tamil Muslim, when the secular Congress Party, led by Sonia Gandhi, refused to support Governor Alexander's nomination. Reportedly, the Congress Party feared that a Christian was being nominated by Hindu nationalists for the presidency as a strategic move in order to rule out the prospect of Sonia Gandhi, the Christian leader of the Congress Party, from becoming prime minister. A concurrent Christian president and Christian prime minister in Hindu-majority India would have been politically unacceptable. Given the precedent set in 2002, presumably the vice president will not automatically become the president following the president's death or retirement.

Following the rule of the first non-Congress government between 1977 and 1979, and the new era of changing coalition governments led by the Congress or the BJP since 1989, there have been some demands that the president in office should reflect the party of the government in power, even if this meant that the term of the ruling president had to be curtailed. But this idea has not found favor, since the president is expected to be the impartial representative of the people of India, and in particular, to follow the advice of the prime minister and his Cabinet. Indian presidents have been of distinguished backgrounds, and have maintained the dignity and the impartiality of India's highest office.

In the period between Indian independence on 15 August 1947 and the promulgation of the Constitution of the Indian republic on 26 January 1950, there were two interim governor-generals of India: the last viceroy, Lord Louis Mountbatten, and the distinguished Tamil Congress leader, Chakravarti Rajagopalachari. Including Rajagopalachari and the Dalit president K. R. Narayanan, nine Indian heads of state have been Hindus, of which two were acting presidents. As of 2005, there have been three Muslim presidents, one Sikh, and one Dalit. The two acting presidents following the deaths in office of the president, were a Muslim from the North and a Hindu from the South. Thus, while the majority linguistic Hindu North has dominated elected political representation in Parliament, the nominal and formal presidency of India has been dominated by the minority linguistic South, and by religious minorities.


Lord Louis Mountbatten (last British Viceroy)1947–1948
Chakravarthi Rajagopalachari (South; Hindu)1948–1950
1. Rajendra Prasad (North; Hindu)1950–1962
2. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (South; Hindu)1962–1967
3. Zakir Hussain (North; Muslim) 1967–1969 (died in office)
3a. Mohammed Hidayatullah (acting president; North; Muslim) July–August 1969
4. Varahagiri Venkata Giri (South; Hindu)1969–1974
5. Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed (North; Muslim)1974–1977 (died in office)
5a. B. D. Jatti (acting president; South; Hindu)February–July 1977
6. Neelam Sanjiva Reddy (South; Hindu)1977–1982
7. Giani Zail Singh (North; Sikh)1982–1987
8. Raman Venkataraman (South; Hindu)1987–1992
9. Shankar Dayal Sharma (North; Hindu)1992–1997
10. Kocheril Raman Narayanan (South; Hindu)1997–2002
11. Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam (South; Muslim) 2002–

The Presidents

Rajendra Prasad (1950–1962)

Born in 1884, Prasad was selected as the first president of India following the adoption of the Indian Constitution in January 1950. He was a follower of Mahatma Gandhi and a believer in nonviolence. He had briefly held the portfolio of the ministry for food in 1947 in the interim government of Jawaharlal Nehru. He was awarded the Bharat Ratna in 1962. Dr. Prasad died in 1963.

Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1962–1967)

Born in 1888, Radhakrishnan was a scholar, philosopher, writer, and statesman. He served as the first vice president of India (1952–1962). Dr. Radhakrishnan taught at Oxford University for sixteen years and served as chairman of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization in the late 1940s. His books include Indian Philosophy (1923) and The Hindu View of Life (1942). He was awarded the Bharat Ratna in 1954. Dr. Radhakrishnan died in 1975.

Zakir Hussain (1967–1969)

Hussain was born in 1897 and died in 1969 while in office. A great patriot, educator, and social worker, he previously served as chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University. Dr. Hussain received the Bharat Ratna in 1963.

Mohammed Hidayatullah (acting, July–August 1969)

Born in 1905, Justice Hidayatullah was a judge of the High Court and served as chief commissioner of Scouts and Guides. He died in 1992.

Varahagiri Venkata Giri (1969–1974)

Born in 1884, Giri was a lawyer by profession and a veteran trade unionist. He received the Bharat Ratna in 1975 and died in 1980.

Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed (1974–1977)

Ahmed, born in 1905, was active in the freedom movement. He served as a union minister from 1966 before becoming president. He died in 1977.

B. D. Jatti (acting, February–July 1977)

Born in 1913, Jatti was a lawyer who had previously served as chief minister of Karnataka and as governor of Orissa.

Neelam Sanjiva Reddy (1977–1982)

Reddy was born in 1913. He served as chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, union minister, and Speaker of the Lok Sabha (Parliament's lower house). He had been a freedom fighter and president of Indian National Congress. He died in 1996.

Giani Zail Singh (1982–1987)

Born in 1916, Zail Singh's public life was long and varied. He was a freedom fighter, social reformer, state congress leader, successful chief minister, and union home minister. He died in 1994.

Raman Venkataraman (1987–1992)

Venkataraman was born in 1910. He was elected to India's First Parliament (1952–1957), and reelected in 1957. However, he resigned his seat to join the State Government of Madras as a Minister. In 1980, Venkataraman was reelected to the Lok Sabha and was appointed minister of finance and later minister of defense in the government headed by Indira Gandhi. He was elected vice president of India in August 1984, then was elevated to the office of president after Zail Singh completed his five-year term in office.

Shankar Dayal Sharma (1992–1997)

Born in 1918, he had served as vice president and was elevated to president after Venkataraman completed his five-year term. Dr. Sharma was a scholar and freedom fighter and had served as chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, president of the Congress Party, and cabinet minister. He died in 1999.

Kocheril Raman Narayanan (1997–2002)

Born in 1920, Narayanan was born into a Dalit family in the village of Uzhavoor in the Kottayam district of Kerala. He was educated at the London School of Economics, and served as Indian ambassador to the United States from 1980 to 1984. On his return to India, he entered politics and won three successive General Elections in 1984, 1989, and 1991 from his constituency in Kerala. During this time, he was minister of state for planning, for external affairs, and for science and technology. He was elected vice president of India in August 1992 and assumed the presidency after President S. D. Sharma completed his five-year term.

Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam (25 July 2002–)

Abdul Kalam was born in 1931 into a poor Tamil Muslim family in Dhanushkodi in the Rameshwaram district of Tamil Nadu. Having headed and directed the Indian missile program in India, Kalam has been recognized as the father of India's missile technology and is often called the "missile man" of India. Dr. Abdul Kalam formerly served as the scientific adviser to the government of India.

S. Radhakrishnan1952–1962
Zakir Hussain 1962–1967
Varahagiri Venkata Giri 1967–1969
G. S. Pathak 1969–1974
B. D. Jatti 1974–1979
M. Hidayatullah 1979–1984
R. Venkataraman 1984–1987
S. D. Sharma 1987–1992
K. R. Narayanan 1992–1997
Krishan Kant 1997–2002
B. Shekhawat 2002–

Raju G. C. Thomas

See alsoAbdul Kalam, Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen (A. P. J.) ; Narayanan, K. R. ; Political System ; Radhakrishnan, Sarvepalli


Ahuja, M. L. The Presidents of India and Their Constitutional Portrayal. New Delhi: Om Publications, 1997.

Goswami, Prashanta. Presidents of India: 50 Years. New Delhi: B. R. Publishing Corporation, 1999.

Jal, Janak Raj. Presidents of India, 1950-2000. New Delhi: Regency Publications, 2002.

Noorani, A. G. Constitutional Questions in India: The President, Parliament and the States. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2000.

About this article

Presidents of India

Updated About content Print Article