The President who called a spade a spade

This October 27, K.R. Narayanan would have been 100 years old. But no one would perform any rites of remembrance. Another day and another time, Narayanan would have been showcased as a prime success story of an India that made one and all ‘meritorious’ Indians believe that they could find a place under the constitutional sun. A man from an ordinary, humble background could get inducted into the elite Indian Foreign Service — all that counted was his calibre and competence. He had no godfather or a clan to speak up for him.

Example of an inclusive India

And that K.R. Narayanan would hear the call of public office, get elected to the Lok Sabha, become the Vice-President of India and preside over the Rajya Sabha, and, then, go on to occupy the Rashtrapati Bhavan, told the tale of a Nehruvian India where all that mattered was the requisite temperament and character. India could take pride that it was an open system, a democratic arrangement, and a society committed to an egalitarian social order — and was comfortable with excellence and accomplishment.

In the process, K.R. Narayanan became a prime example of an inclusive India. He had the distinction of being the first Dalit President of India. His elevation to the Rashtrapati Bhavan had more than a token significance; and, even though the new, aggressive Ambedkarites may not think much of him, his election as President did announce the arrival of a new social assertion. It needs to be kept in mind that he was the presidential choice of the United Front coalition, a political dispensation that sincerely believed that if India had to progress and become a great nation, then it must be a country for all Indians, from all strata, unimpeded with competitive parochialism.

In his long innings of public service, K.R. Narayanan conducted himself as a modern man, well-tutored in scientific temper; he became the first Indian public figure when as Vice-President, he shook hands with an HIV-infected person, whereas the self-proclaimed charismatic saviours were shying up making the gesture. He was urbane and cosmopolitan, at ease with the best and the brightest at home; he never felt over-awed and certainly never felt intimidated in the world’s chancelleries because of his immense faith in the nobility of the great democratic experiment under way in the country he represented. However, it was as the President that K.R. Narayanan repaid his debt to the republic. Circumstances demanded that he creatively explored the potential of the office; and, he turned out to be a responsible custodian of the Constitution.

Reining in Governors

In the process he became the protector of constitutional morality, the most cherished republican virtue. Most gratifyingly, he twice used his position to rein in errant Governors, even though they had the ruling establishment’s patronage.

First, it was Romesh Bhandari at the Lucknow Raj Bhavan, who fell afoul of President Narayanan’s sense of constitutional fairness. Within months of taking over as the President, Narayanan stood up to the United Front political bosses and would not go along with the I.K. Gujral cabinet’s preference to invoke Article 356 to get rid of the Kalyan Singh Government in Uttar Pradesh. In his memoirs, Matters of Discretion: An Autobiography, Gujral himself notes that the President firmly reminded him of the Bommai judgment and the Sarkaria Commission recommendations. It was the first time that a President had asked the Union Cabinet to reconsider a proposed constitutional act.

The second time President Narayanan ticked off a Governor’s conduct was in July 2001 when the Raj Bhavan in Chennai disappointingly remained a mute spectator as a former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, M. Karunanidhi (and two serving central Ministers) were roughed up by the Tamil Nadu police, at the behest of an extremely vindictive Chief Minister Jayalalitha. It was President Narayanan who suggested to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to demand a report from Tamil Nadu Governor M. Fathima Beevi. A presidential rebuke was implicit in the Rashtrapati Bhavan suggestion; soon, the Governor was recalled.

In both these instances, the Governors had allowed the Raj Bhavan to be used to give respectability to shabby political calculations. Not on his presidential watch, insisted Narayanan.

Speaking his mind

The Indian Constitution does not envisage the President of India to be a power centre, leave alone set himself up as a rival power centre (to the Prime Minister). Yet, there is always considerable wiggle room for a President to have his presence felt.

Once A.B. Vajpayee became the Prime Minister, the National Democratic Alliance bosses learnt to their discomfort that the man occupying the Rashtrapati Bhavan was no push-over. No wonder, L.K. Advani, in his memoirs, disparagingly called him an “activist president.” Perhaps, for good reason.

After its 1999 Lok Sabha victory, the BJP crowd thought that it had earned a licence to make amendments to the Constitution. There was even a commission to review the ‘working’ of the Constitution. K.R. Narayanan used the prestige and the pulpit of his office to warn the nation of inherent danger to the Constitution from small minds, strutting around with an over-inflated sense of self importance.

And, a few months later, K.R. Narayanan again made his presence felt during U.S. President Bill Clinton’s visit to India. At the Rashtrapati Bhavan banquet for the visiting American, President Narayanan horrified the ministerial posse by reminding everyone of non-alignment as an instrument of Indian foreign policy in pursuit of autonomy and independence. That was the time when the Vajpayee government was doing all it could to cosy up to the Americans. The ruling coterie was not amused; it thought the President had gone off the reservation. Yet, it was a battle that the ruling politicians lost in the face of a resolute presidential rectitude.

President Narayanan, also, had a sense of political moment. In 1999, when A.B. Vajpayee lost the vote of confidence by a solitary vote, and, when an alternative government had to be formed, he tried to nudge the non-BJP forces to suggest the possibility of the West Bengal Chief Minister, Jyoti Basu, becoming a prime ministerial choice. The upper caste Congress leaders, led by M.L. Fotedar and Pranab Mukherjee, were dead set against the idea of a ‘communist’ becoming prime minister. Had President Narayanan’s hint been taken up, there would have been no second term for A.B. Vajpayee, and there would have been no “Gujarat, 2002” and no Narendra Modi.

As the President, Narayanan was nobody’s man. A President need not be anybody’s man or woman. The Constitution thrives on a dynamic interlocking institutional balance; failure of one functionary to perform his or her dharma ends up injuring the health of the entire Republic. Narayanan demonstrated how it was possible to be brilliantly creative in upholding the institutional obligations of an office — and, preserve the republic’s equilibrium.

Harish Khare is a senior journalist based in Delhi

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