The People’s Presidents

India celebrates Republic Day on January 26, a commemoration of the day the nation formally became a republic in 1950; a constitution which had been ratified by the constituent assembly on November 26, 1949. January 26, 1950 also happens to be the day when Dr Rajendra Prasad took oath as India’s first president at the Durbar Hall in the Government House. This was followed by a drive to the Irwin Stadium, where he unfurled India’s national flag; the first president who guided the nation for 12 years. And as of now, the 13th president, Pranab Mukherjee, has taken the reins to help change the course of our country’s development.

All the presidents have been of people with great wisdom, patriotism, eminence, and statesmanship. And they have each finished their terms with genuine dedication, determination and dignity. And we can’t deny that India’s presidents have had a transformative impact on the nation during their terms. So in honour of this occasion, we recount all 13 individuals who have been the titular heads of state, with a brief analysis of their influence and accomplishments.          --- Anisha

Dr Rajendra Prasad
Term of Office: 26 January 1950 to 13 May 1962

The longest serving president in Indian history, Dr Rajendra Prasad played a prominent role in the Indian freedom struggle. A lawyer by profession, Dr Prasad left his practice to join the movement along with Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. Born on December 3, 1884, Dr Prasad was an active participant in crucial freedom movements, including Champaran Satyagraha of 1917, Non-Cooperation Movement of 1920, Salt Satyagraha of 1931, and Quit India Movement of 1942.

In 1948, he was unanimously elected president by the constituent assembly that drafted the first constitution of the Republic and lasted till 1950. When he took office, Dr Prasad established a tradition of non-partisanship and quit the Congress by setting new principles for the parliamentarians that are still followed today. Although a ceremonial head of state, Dr Prasad encouraged people to focus on education. In 1957, Dr Prasad was re-elected to the presidency, becoming the only president to have been re-elected.

Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan
Term of Office: 13 May 1962 to 13 May 1967

Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, India’s first Vice President and the second President, has been labelled by many as the most learned scholar and statesman of the 20th century. He has worked to promote Indian philosophy, especially that of the Vedantas, and has famously connected it with the West. This may explain why, in 1931, he was appointed a Knight of the Golden Army of Angels by Pope Paul VI. Dr Radhakrishnan also held the position of Vice Chancellor of Andhra University from 1931 to 1936, and Banaras Hindu University from 1939 to 1948.Apart from this, Dr Radhakrishnan was also elected as a Fellow of the British Academy in 1938, the German “Order pour le Merite for Arts and Science” in 1954, and the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade in 1961.

Born on September 5 in the year 1888 in Thiruttani, Tamil Nadu, Sarvepalli represented India at the United Nations Educational, Social and Cultural Organisation (1946–52), and later served as the Ambassador of India to the Soviet Union. Before becoming president, Radhakrishnan was conferred with the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian award, in 1954. Since 1962, in honour of Radhakrishnan’s belief that “teachers should be the best minds in the country,” the Institution of Teacher’s Day in India started. A year later, for his services to education, he also received the British Order of Merit, Sahitya Akademi fellowship in 1968, and the Templeton Prize in 1975.

Zakir Husain
Term of Office: 13 May 1967 to 3 May 1969

Zakir Husain was among the group of teachers and students who founded a National Muslim University, in Aligarh at the age of 23 and never looked back. From then on, Zakir played an essential role in shaping the country’s education system. He was the first Muslim to receive the Padma Vibhushan in 1954, and Bharat Ratna in 1962.

Born in Hyderabad, Hussain took over the Jamia Millia Islamia in 1927, during turbulent times. He guided it through many difficulties, and later, in 1948, he became a vice chancellor of the Aligarh Muslim University and the Governor of Bihar in 1957. He went on to become the second Vice President of India (1962–67), and in 1967 was elected the third president. While Zakir died in 1969, in those two short years he remained a teacher at heart, and worked to strengthen secularism in the country.

Following his death, he was buried on the campus of Jamia Millia Islamia, where his mausoleum remains open to public. Soon after his death, Varahagiri Venkata Giri was appointed the acting President of India. A few months later, Giri resigned to take part in the presidential elections, allowing Mohammad Hidayatullah to serve as acting president of India until Giri was elected the fourth President of India.

Varahagiri Venkata Giri
Terms of Office: 3 May 1969 to 20 July 1969, and 24 August 1969 to 24 August 1974

Varahagiri Venkata Giri had big shoes to fill when he assumed office following Zakir Husain’s death. Not nearly as memorable as other famous presidents, V.V. Giri had no less an impact on Indian politics. In fact, he was regarded as a head of state under whom the independence of the office eroded, someone who completely subordinated the office of the president to the prime minister, and has been described as a “Rubber Stamp President,” “Loyalist President,” and a “Prime Minister’s President”.

Born in Berhampur, Odisha, Giri became a member of the Congress party in 1916, and joined the Home Rule Movement of Annie Besant soon after. He was a founding member of the All India Railwaymen’s Federation in 1923, and was a key figure in the trade union movement of India in 1926. From 1947 to 1951, Giri functioned as Indian Minister of Labour and High Commissioner to Sri Lanka (then Ceylon). Later he went on to become the governor of Uttar Pradesh (1957–1960), Kerala (1960–1965), and Karnataka (1965–1967).

Giri was sworn in as acting president in 1969 immediately upon the death of Zakir Hussain. He resigned from his post within a few months to contest the presidential elections as an independent candidate, and was elected, making him the only person to have served as both an acting president and president of India. In 1975, Giri was a recipient of the Bharat Ratna for his contributions in the area of public affairs.

Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed
Term of Office: 24 August 1974 to 11 February 1977

It was in 1925 when Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed – son of Col. Zalnur Ali Ahmed (the first Assamese person to have a doctor of medicine degree) – joined the Indian National Congress. From then on he actively participated in the Indian freedom movement. He worked in various capacities, including in the Rajya Sabha (1952–1953), and the Assam Legislative Assembly for two terms (1957–1962) and
(1962–1967). In 1974, Fakhruddin was chosen for the presidency by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, thus becoming the second Muslim to be elected president of India.

In the history of Indian politics, no other president has had such controversy consistently surrounding them like that of Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed. Fakhruddin issued the “Proclamation of Emergency” on June 25, 1975, by signing the papers at midnight after a meeting with Indira Gandhi. This suspended democracy while imposing severe restrictions on dissent, free speech and political activities across the country. Fakhruddin died in 1977 in his office, becoming the second Indian president to pass away during a term of office. Vice President Basappa Danappa Jatti was immediately sworn in as the acting President.

Neelam Sanjiva Reddy
Term of Office: 25 July 1977 to 25 July 1982

Born in Illur, Andhra Pradesh, to a Hindu peasant family, Neelam Sanjiva Reddy was the first Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh state (1962–1964), a two-time speaker of the Lok Sabha (1967 and 1977) and a Union minister (1964–67), before becoming the youngest-ever Indian president in 1977.

In 1967, Reddy was directly elected to the post of Lok Sabha speakership from Andhra Pradesh, a position he resigned in 1969 to contest the presidential election. It is alleged that after filing the nomination, then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi subsequently organised his defeat by “unethical means.”  Reddy was away from politics for some time, but assumed office as Lok Sabha speaker in 1977, only to resign a few months later to participate in the presidential nomination process.

After being elected the president in 1977, Reddy took various decisions on crucial issues, including him moving out of the Rashtrapati Bhawan to a smaller accommodation, and taking a 70% pay cut in solidarity with India’s impoverished masses. During a span of five years, he worked with three governments – Prime Ministers Morarji Desai (1977–79), Charan Singh (1979), and Indira Gandhi (1980–82). Reddy articulated the country’s views with utmost finesse on the international stage – a quality that made him a rare statesman.

Zail Singh
Term of Office: 25 July 1982 to 25 July 1987

As the seventh President of India, ‘Giani’ Zail Singh became the first Sikh head of state, and the only president who has had controversy consistently surrounding him. Starting his career in 1949 in state politics, Singh became the revenue minister of the recently formed Patiala and East Punjab States Union; Minister of Agriculture in 1951; and a member of the Rajya Sabha in 1956. However, the turning point in his career came in 1972, when he was elected Chief Minister of Punjab. In 1980, after being elected in the seventh Lok Sabha, he was appointed as the cabinet minister in the Ministry of Home Affairs.

On July 25th, 1982, Singh was unanimously elected as president. Under Singh’s presidency in 1984, the Central Government, in order to remove Sikh militants who were amassing weapons in the Golden Temple in Amritsar, carried out an attack on the Golden Temple – called Operation Blue Star. Following the carnage, Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards four months later. He further had to face dissension when he appointed Rajiv Gandhi as prime minister, under whose rule anti-Sikh riots across India were triggered.

Ramaswamy Venkataraman
Term of Office: 25 July 1987 to 25 July 1992

The eighth president of India, Ramaswamy Venkataraman was born in 1910, in Tanjore district in the then Madras Presidency. Noted as one of the most admired diplomats in India, Ramaswamy, popularly known as RV, studied law and practised in the Madras High Court (1935) and the Supreme Court of India (1951). An activist of the Indian independence movement from a young age, Venkataraman was jailed by the British after his participation in the Quit India Movement in 1942.

After his release in 1950, he was elected to independent India’s Provisional Parliament (1950–1952) and to the First Parliament (1952–1957). He eventually joined the central government in 1967, where he went to serve as minister of finance and industry, followed by the minister of defence. At that point, Venkataraman initiated the Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme, India’s first missile programme, appointing Dr A. P. J. Abdul Kalam as the programme head.

After four years as vice president of India, Venkataraman was sworn in as the eighth president of the Republic in 1987. It was during his tenure that the Indian electorate threw up a fractured mandate, and the nation saw a quick succession of four prime ministers in two years: P.V. Narasimha Rao, Chandra Shekhar, Viswanath Pratap Singh, and Rajiv Gandhi.

R. Venkataraman was the recipient of a Soviet Land Prize which the Russian government conferred on him for writing the travelogue of Kumaraswami Kamaraj’s (a former Tamil Nadu chief minister) visit to Russia. For his contributions to India’s freedom struggle, Venkataraman was awarded the Tamra Patra.

Shankar Dayal Sharma
Term of Office: 25 July 1992 to 25 July 1997

Recognised as one of the most scholarly of Indian presidents, Dr Shankar Dayal Sharma was born in the city of Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh. Serving as the ninth president of India, from 1992 to 1997, Dr Sharma participated in the Quit India Movement and in the merger movement in Bhopal before joining politics.

A lawyer by profession, Dr Sharma was the Chief Minister of Bhopal in 1952, and held a cabinet post in Education, Law, Industry and Commerce, Public Works, National Resources and Separate Revenue between 1956 and 1967. He was also the president of the Indian National Congress in 1972, and returned to the government as union minister for communications in 1974.
Before being sworn in as the eighth Vice President of India and the chairman of the Rajya Sabha, Dr Sharma also served as the governor of Andhra Pradesh, Punjab and Maharashtra (1984 – 1987). Elevated from vice presidency, Sharma succeeded Ramaswamy Venkataraman in 1992.

Steeped in the Nehru tradition, Dr Sharma’s vision was that of the country where harmony prevailed; where everybody could afford basic necessities and people could held their head high. Known for fair play and dignity, the International Bar Association presented Dr Sharma with the ‘Living Legends of Law Award of Recognition’ for his commitment to the rule of law, and his outstanding contributions to the legal profession internationally.

Kocheril Raman Narayanan
Term of Office: 25 July 1997 to 25 July 2002

An academic, author, journalist, administrator, cabinet minister, diplomat, and politician who also served as vice president for five years, K.R. Narayanan remains one of the most idealistic presidents of all time. The 10th president of India, Narayanan, after being elected by the country’s state and federal lawmakers, changed the country for the better by innovating and improvising.

Born in Perumthanam, Kerala, Narayanan entered politics in the year 1984, as a member of parliament for the ruling Congress party, and went on to win three successive general elections to the Lok Sabha. Later, under former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, he served as a minister of state in the Union Cabinet. In 1984, Narayanan was elected as the ninth vice president. It was in 1997 – more than half a century after India’s independence – that Narayanan, a member of the lowest caste, became the first Dalit president.

During his tenure, he broke the diplomatic ice with China; twice, on constitutional grounds, questioned the Union Cabinet decisions; and joined other citizens at a polling booth to cast his vote. It was in 1998 that he spoke about land reform and gave a sense of economic liberation to the masses, which eventually led to our economic boom. Towards the end of his presidency, when communal riots broke out in Gujarat, Narayanan who was deeply anguished and pained, wrote to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee seeking immediate deployment of the army to control the situation, but was unsuccessful in his effort.

A.P.J. Abdul Kalam
Term of Office: 25 July 2002 to 25 July 2007

Scientist turned statesman Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam may very well be known as the best president of India, no matter what side of the political spectrum you are aligned with. Elected in 2002, Dr Kalam was highly respected for establishing himself as a president with a difference. Furthermore, he made sure he devoted a majority of his time to interacting with students.

Born and raised in Rameshwaram, Tamil Nadu, Dr Kalam graduated from the Madras Institute of Technology in 1960, and went on to work as an Aerospace Engineer at the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). In 1969, Dr Kalam was with the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), where he successfully deployed the Rohini satellite in near-earth orbit. The Missile Man of India – as he was popularly called –played a leading role in the development of India’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.

Dr Kalam received several awards and honours for his extraordinary contribution to scientific research in India. These include seven honorary doctorates from 40 universities, Padma Bhushan in 1981, and the Padma Vibhushan in 1990, the Bharat Ratna in 1997, and the Von Braun Award from the National Space Society in 2013. With a deep commitment to modernising the defence technology in India, Dr Kalam was instrumental in reshaping the country. In 2006, Dr Kalam, after refusing to approve the office-of-profit bill, returned it for reconsideration by both Houses of Parliament.
Kalam died following a heart attack in 2015, but the nuclear scientist is and will continue to be an inspiration and an eternally loved president of India.

Pratibha Patil
Term of Office: 25 July 2007 to 25 July 2012

A lawyer with 30 years in politics, which included serving as governor of Rajasthan (the first woman to hold that office), Pratibha Patil was a strong and indispensable leader. Leading the second-most populous country and the largest democratic country in the world, India’s first female president won by a huge margin over then vice president Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, following a bitter presidential campaign.

Patil’s five-year tenure hasn’t been without controversy; dubbed as the most merciful president since 1981, she pardoned the death sentences of 35 petitioners to life – with no real justification. According to the records, Pratibha was also noted for having taken more foreign trips, and having spent more money on these trips, than any prior president.
But as the leader of India, she along with her husband, Devisingh Ransingh Shekhawat, established Vidya Bharati Shikshan Prasarak Mandal, an institute which runs a chain of schools and colleges in Jalgaon, Amravati, and Mumbai. She also set up Shram Sadhana, a trust which runs hostels for working women in Mumbai, New Delhi, and Pune. In addition, she co-founded Sant Muktabai Sahakari Sakhar Karkhana, a cooperative sugar factory in Muktainagar, Maharashtra.

Pranab Mukherjee
Term of Office: 25 July 2012 to present

Four years into his term as president of India, Pranab Mukherjee continues to craft bold plans for India’s future.

Born into a Bengali Brahmin family in Mirati, Bengal, Mukherjee’s political career began in 1969 when then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi recruited him to the Indian National Congress. He became a member of the Rajya Sabha in July 1969, and was re-elected to the house in 1975, 1981, 1993, and 1999. He worked his way up through the ranks, starting as Union Deputy Minister of Industrial Development. Mukherjee rose through a series of cabinet posts to become finance minister in 1982. After handling major ministries – Defence, Commerce, Foreign, Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, and Finance – Mukherjee is said to have been the most versatile minister of India.

Apart from being a diplomat, a professor and a journalist with the Desher Dak, Mukherjee has served on the Board of Governors of the World Bank, IMF, African Development Bank, and Asian Development Bank. Voted as Best Finance Minister in the World by Euromoney magazine in 1984, Mukherjee also led the Indian delegations to the Commonwealth Finance Ministers’ Conferences in 1982, 1983, and 1984; the Non-Aligned Foreign Minister’s Conference at Cartagena in 1995; and the United Nations General Assembly in 1994, 1995, 2005, and 2006.

With a focus on the welfare of the country, Mukherjee – whose 2012 appointment as India’s 13th president rose above politics – earned the support of peers in both parties. His is a mind that is unrelenting; he has rejected several mercy petitions including that of Yakub Memon, Afzal Guru, and Ajmal Kasab. Time and again he has proven that he will not back down from any obstacle that stands in the way of true security for the Indian people.