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The value of decency

THE EIGHTH PRESIDENT: A 2003 file picture of R. Venkataraman. Photo: V. Ganesan   | Photo Credit: V_GANESAN

Ramaswami Venkataraman would have turned a hundred today.

“Don't wish that for me!” he protested when I rang to wish him “a full century and more” on his last birthday, in 2008. “I have lost all desire to live …”

The former President was reflecting a widely shared despondency about contemporary politics and public life.

In the Gandhi-Nehru years of which RV was a part, politics absorbed hugely talented people. With thriving careers open to them, in the law, in trained professions and callings they yet devoted themselves to the free.

Between the 1920s and 1930s, new entrants joined the freedom struggle straight after school or college, often without completing study. By the time of the Quit India movement the full-time politician had well and truly arrived. But yet even in those politically surcharged times, politicians knew that life was larger than politics, politics was larger than the party, and the party was about more than one's own advancement within its ranks.

Today, the position is different.

“Anyone and everyone can join politics today,” RV rued not very long ago in a conversation with me in his sitting room in New Delhi. The day's newspapers were on the table in front of him. “All he needs to do is to show enough money towards his electability, enough vote-bank numbers on his side, and he gets a ticket.”

His electoral history

His own electoral history was awesome. RV had fought altogether five elections to the Lok Sabha, winning four — 1952, 1957, 1977 and 1980 — and losing one, in 1967.

Standing for Parliament from Tanjore in the very first elections held in independent India, in 1952, RV had taken a huge risk. Was the seat selected for this Aiyar Congressman (or he for the seat) because the district had a fair number of Brahmins? Double-cropping deltaic Tanjore was tense with exploited agricultural labourers (prominently Harijan) asking for higher wages and non-cultivating landowners (mostly Brahmin) of large paddy-acreages resisting the demand by importing labour and introducing tractors. In fielding RV from radicalised Tanjore, Congress in classical left-of-centre idiom, was making the statement that agrarian reforms must come, but must come constitutionally.

Leading the national campaign in 1952, Nehru was a fit 63. Leading the battle for votes in the State, Kamaraj was an energetic 49. And touring Tanjore in bullock carts, RV was an extremely young 42. Already valued as an exceptionally intelligent lawyer-turned-freedom fighter with a commitment to social equity, RV was known as one who had spent two years in jail for participating in the Quit India movement and on his release diligently taken up with cerebral passion issues pertaining to labour.

The Congress in Madras State was in for a tough fight and, with the rest of the South, did poorly. But RV won. He won the next election to the second Lok Sabha in 1957 too, from the same seat. Resigned from it to take up Chief Minister Kamaraj's call to join the State Cabinet, the trade unionist politician with strong egalitarian views showed another mettle — economic planning, turning a State not known for industries into one that became a model for industrialisation at all levels, small, medium and large. And he did that with almost zero attention being allowed to come to himself. He was a Minister, a Minister in Kamaraj's and later in M. Bhaktavatsalam's cabinet and that was that. “We had a big-team spirit,” he would say of that phase. Was that spirit smart because it was good or good because it was smart? If RV was asked that, he would probably have just smiled through his thick bi-focals and said “You decide.”

The decade — 1957 to 1967 — that saw Kamaraj and RV becoming a politico-administrative duumvir within the State also saw national politics shaken. The war with China and Nehru's passing away had demoralised the nation. The rise of regional parties coinciding with the formation of the Swatantra Party under Rajaji's formidable leadership had given democracy a new vigour but the Congress a jolt.

In the testy 1967 elections, RV contested the Tanjore Lok Sabha seat for Congress again. This time, not agrarian equity but ethnicity and incumbency dominated the universe of voters in the State, many of them “first-timers.” Only three Congress contestants out of 39 were elected, with the Dravida Munnettra Kazhagam (DMK) trouncing the Congress comprehensively. Tasting defeat for the first (and only time), RV conceded victory to a DMK candidate, relatively unknown earlier and little known, since. That is what waves, even tidal waves, do. It was just like RV to find no comfort in the fact that other Congress stalwarts like C. Subramaniam, O.V. Alagesan, N. Mahalingam and Maragatham Chandrasekar had also lost by far wider margins in their home turfs.

One more decade was to pass before RV contested for the Lok Sabha again, in 1977. The intervening decade had seen Indira Gandhi's national emergency, and his leader Kamaraj's death from a political site opposed to Indira Gandhi's. It is conceivable that if Kamaraj had lived, RV would have stayed by his side and either moved inexorably away with his leader away from the Congress or — who knows — brought the titan closer to Indira Gandhi for the good of the nation's greatness. But with Kamaraj gone, RV's “intelligence” saw him back in the Congress fold, contesting and winning the Madras South against the DMK's Murasoli Maran. The Congress having been defeated resoundingly in the “hinterland,” RV sat in the opposition in the Sixth Lok Sabha, respected by the senior Janata leadership. Had RV not contested the 1977 election, it is possible that he would not have been fielded at the elections in 1980 when he won with a thumping majority from the same seat, this time in alliance with the DMK, to become Finance Minister and then Defence Minister in Indira Gandhi's cabinet.

As Vice-President and President

He was 70. The Vice-Presidency and Rashtrapati Bhavan awaited him.

I happened to be secretary to the Governor of Tamil Nadu when RV came to Chennai on his first visit as Vice-President. After he had returned to Delhi, I was called by Governor Khurana. “ Upa Rashtrapatiji wants you to join his staff as secretary … I have said I will release you …”

The Vice-President could have summoned me himself and said as much, but no. He asked my boss, his host, to do so. That is propriety. Seven years of intense work under a task-master lay ahead of me, first as his secretary and then, in Rashtrapati Bhavan, as his joint secretary. Between those two transitions, came another remarkable occasion, for RV's sense of propriety was at play. The Congress under Rajiv Gandhi nominated Vice-President Venkataraman as its candidate for the office being vacated by Giani Zail Singh. The Left fielded the esteemed Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer. “Iyer v/s Iyer,” the shallow wag commented.

Though the result was foregone, it was suggested to RV that he undertake a nationwide tour to campaign. He declined. “I will have to speak for my candidature versus Justice Krishna Iyer's. That in itself will be unpleasant. But more importantly when the country is plagued by so many divisions, what is the point of a future Rashtrapati, going about dividing the country's Presidential vote …? Let the electoral college decide on the basis of its knowledge of the candidates and a reading of the situation … I will keep quiet.”

RV did not campaign, and he won. Any candidate of the ruling party would have. But RV's victory was won with a major propriety observed, life shown to be larger than politics, and a worthy opponent left free to lose the election — that was his prerogative — but not his prestige.

Ramaswami Venkataraman would be an anachronistic hundred today.

( Gopalkrishna Gandhi is the former Governor of West Bengal.)


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