The President and Parliament are joined together by a line in our Constitution. Article 79 states, “There shall be a Parliament for the Union which shall consist of the President and two Houses to be known respectively as the Council of States and the House of the People.” Beyond the words of our founding document, there is a personal connection between the two institutions. Most of our presidents have played a role in our national legislature.
President Rajendra Prasad chaired the Constituent Assembly that created our Constitution. Six of his successors (Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, Zakir Husain, VV Giri, R Venkataraman, Shankar Dayal Sharma and KR Narayanan) had steered the dates of Rajya Sabha as its chairman. President Neelam Sanjiva Reddy had been twice elected the speaker of Lok Sabha. And the Rajya Sabha was where Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, Zail Singh, Pratibha Devisingh Patil, Pranab Mukherjee and current President Ram Nath Kovind started their association with the national legislature.
In 1912, during the planning for the new capital city of Delhi, the idea was to house the legislature in one part of the Government House (now Rashtrapati Bhavan). In pre-Independence India, legislatures existed under the shadow of the country’s colonial government. They were toothless and had limited Indian representation. The governor-general was the head of the government and had the power to overrule the council. And since the legislatures were hardly independent, the Government House in Kolkata (the present Raj Bhavan), where the viceroy seat lived and worked, was also the for the meetings of the imperial council. When the government moved to the hills to escape the summer heatthe council’s meetings took place in the viceregal lodge in Shimla.
In 1913, Edwin Lutyens, the architect of the Government House in Delhi, had asked Lord Hardinge (under term Delhi became the capital) to consider the idea of a separate building for the council. Hardinge replied, “No… I, as Governor-General, with my council (of six) govern India, so it must be in my house!” As a result, when Herbert Baker and Lutyens signed on to be the architects for Delhi, their brief only included the design of the “Government House” and “Two principal blocks of Government of India Secretariats and attached buildings (North and South Block)”. As part of the Government House, they were to design a Legislative Council Chamber and, accompanying it, a library and writing room, a public gallery and committee rooms.
The plan to house the legislature inside the Government House would never materialise. The Montague-Chelmsford Reforms of 1918 would result in the creation of a larger bicameral legislature in the country. And to house it, the iconic circular Council House (present Parliament building) would be constructed. After independence, our Constitution would redefine the relationship between the President and Parliament. It would join them together to make the legislature and also provide for them to come together.
Every year, the calendar begins with the President’s Address. It is a solemn occasion when the entire Parliament – the president and members of Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha – assemble under a constitutional mandate. The event is associated with the ceremony and protocol. The Lok Sabha Secretariat prepares extensively for this event. In the past, it used to get 150 yards of red baize cloth from the President’s House for the ceremonial procession. An officer of Lok Sabha would remind the aid-de-camp (ADC) to the president to bring the water and tumbler from Rashtrapati Bhavan for the president’s use.
The president arrives at Parliament House escorted by the Presidential Guards. The presiding officers of the two Houses, the prime minister, the minister for parliamentary affairs, and the secretaries-general of the two Houses, receive the president. They escort the president to the Central Hall, where he delivers his address to the assembled MPs of Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha.
The president is usually not disturbed while delivering the speech. The first time that tradition was broken was in 1963, when President Radhakrishnan was interrupted by a few MPs. President Radhakrishnan, who had earlier chaired Rajya Sabha, took it in his stride and continued with his speech. But Lok Sabha took note of the incident. The House conveyed its regrets to the President and reprimanded the offending MPs. Over the years, political parties have resolved to treat the President’s Address as sacrosanct and agreed not to interrupt it.
The President’s Address is the viewpoint of the government. It leads to debate in Parliament about the government’s achievement and its goals. After the Constitution came into force, President Rajendra Prasad addressed Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha members for the first time on January 31, 1950. Initially, the president was required to address each session of parliament. As a result, during the provisional parliament in 1950, President Prasad gave an address before every session. The First Amendment to the Constitution in 1951 changed this position and made the president’s address once a year.
In our parliamentary system, the president also shoulders the responsibility for inviting the leader of a political party or alliance to be the prime minister. And a bill passed by Parliament becomes law when the president signs it. President Kalam once sent a bill back to Parliament for reconsideration that was aimed at shielding MPs and MLAs holding an office of profit from disqualification. President Zail Singh postponed his assent to the Post Office (Amendment) Bill, 2006, that would have violated the privacy of personal correspondence, and prevented it from becoming law.
And finally, Parliament House is also the starting point for the journey of most of our presidents into office. It is in its Central Hall that the Chief Justice of India administers to them the oath to “protect and defend the Constitution and the law”, before they become the first citizen of the country.
(Chakshu Roy heads the design and civic engagement initiatives at PRS Legislative Research)