NEW DELHI, India, March 14, (Reuter); A leaked letter from the Indian President Zail Singh has brought into the open a festering row with Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi which now threatens to develop into a full-blown Constitutional crisis.
The strained relations between the self-assured Gandhi, the son and grandson of previous Prime
Ministers, and the self-effacing Sikh President, who likes to recall that he was born in a mud hut, have been common knowledge for months.
According to published reports and political sources, Gandhi, 42, has among other slights:
Minimized the Singh; omitted to give him forewarning of Cabinet reshuffles; ignored offers of fence mending talks; and delayed agreement for Presidential trips abroad.
In a private letter to Gandhi leaked to a major newspaper and published this week, Singh accused the Prime Minister of misinforming Parliament by saying he was keeping the President informed on matters of State.
Political ‘sources say Gandhi believes the unsophisticated Singh, who speaks little English and is at home only in his native Punjabi, demeans the office of the Presidency.
They say Gandhi, whose mother Indira Gandhi was killed by her bodyguards, may also have been affected by Singh’s attempts to mediate in the troubled Punjab and by allegations made in Parliament that Sikhs linked to freedom fighters had been guests at the Presidential palace. :
In recent months Singh, whose term expires in July and who is widely tipped to seek another five years in office, has fought back against Gandhi’s perceived slights.
Singh was Home (Interior) Minister under Indira Gandhi and was handpicked for the post by her. The 71yearold President has never been close to her son, Rajiv Gandhi, although he immediately chose Rajiv as government leader after Indira’s assassination in 1984.
Despite his background in the ruling Congress (1) Party, political sources say Singh has in recent months questioned government policies on issues including appointment of judges, state television and local elections, Most recently, he has infuriated the Congress Party and gained considerable grassroots favor by refusing to sign into law a controversial bill permitting official censorship ‘of private mail.
A yet more serious rupture occurred after Gandhi on March 2 categorically assured the Parliament that he was keeping the nonexecutive President briefed about national developments as he is required to do by Articles 74 and 78 of the Indian Constitution.
Singh, in a private letter to the Prime Minister leaked to the country’s largest circulation English language newspaper, mildly complained, “The factual position is somewhat at variance with what has been stated by you”.
The letter went on to quote chapter adverse of at least 10 occasions when Gandhi had failed to consult or brief the President.
When the Indian Express and its Hindi language sister paper Jansatta printed the letter yesterday, the response was swift.
Officials of the Central Bureau of Investigation, which usually deals with serious crime, searched the house of the Express group’s owner and arrested his adviser, so far with no reason given. Save
The Speaker of the Lower House of Parliament did not question the authenticity of the letter but banned any discussion of it or of the quarrel, leading to noisy scenes and a walkout by most opposition members.
The Chairman of the Upper House, however, announced that he would look into all aspects of the matter. Major Indian newspapers today tended to side with the President. The authoritative times of India held Gandhi “primarily responsible for this unfortunate development” and recalled that it had described his statement to Parliament on March 2 as wholly unconvincing. The conservative Hindu noted that Singh’s letter amounted to saying the Prime Minister had “misinformed or misled Parliament” adding that he had “done well to raise these painful but inescapable issues”.
And a front page analysis in the Indian Express was blunter, saying, “The President of India has in effect called the Prime Minister of India a liar”.
Parliament is now in recess for Holi a rowdy Hindu festival during which people shower each other with colored paints and other missiles.
Unless political tempers cool before it resumes next Wednesday, the mudslinging could then begin in earnest.