Two back-to-back news from the Rashtrapati Bhawan ie, ‘President of Bharat’ and that of a former Rashtrapati heading a panel on ‘One Nation, One Election’, brought back personal memories of serving under one who defended and vocalised the hallowed spirit of the Constitution, fearlessly – Shri KR Narayanan.
Once, while escorting (walking, as he’d insist) President Narayanan in the Mughal Gardens when it was still called so, shared about a wonderful inscription on a column on the exact opposite side of the imposing Rashtrapati Bhawan. As his Military Secretary, I should have known better, but I only knew of the magnificent cream sandstone structure that he was alluding to ie, Jaipur Column, but not of the exact profundity, encrypted thereon.
‘Sir’, was unquestionably the most dignified and erudite exponent of India’s civilisational and constitutional sense that I have ever known, and he gently explained the lofty significance of the words, the setting, and extrapolative symbolism, as he interpreted.
“In thought faith, In word wisdom, In deed courage, In life service, So may India be great”. Almost perfectly as a lodestar, the succinct line seemed to define the instinct, conduct, and necessities of office, for the 15th Rashtrapati.
The Role of President’s Voice for Constitutional Checks
Jaipur Column divides the gap between the tellingly elevated setting of the Rashtrapati Bhawan atop the Raisina Hill with the abode of the ‘conscience keeper of the nation’, overlooking the workings of the Government of India, on either side, as the North Block and the South Block.
Almost adhering to the constitutional wiring of the sovereign, these two continuums (though lower in physical setting) with the same Dholpur stone that makes the Rashtrapati Bhawan, face each other but not the Rashtrapati Bhawan, perhaps, as a deferential means of checks-and-balances.
Sluicing the two Secretariat buildings is what is now even more appropriately called for the said purposes, the Kartavya Path (Path of duty to serve), from Rajpath (Path of the ruler), earlier.
The balance between these two realms is critical, as both, too much noise or even abject silence from atop the Raisina Hill, could rupture the mellifluous 'Idea of India’.
For his part in maintaining the said balance, Narayanan insisted on working, "within the four corners of the constitution” – not as an 'Executive President’ or conversely as a ‘Rubber Stamp’, but only as a 'Working President'
On 25 June 1975, the perils of an over-obliging incumbent in the Rashtrapati Bhawan that could derail that delicate 'balance’ came true, with the signing of the Emergency Proclamation. That night, the Rashtrapati had to seek a sedative to sleep, and the Indian experiment in democracy suffered for want of some necessary 'noise’ or dissent, that could have served the sovereign, better.
However, there was an unmistakable morality, steel, and unmatched accomplishment in KR Narayanan’s own journey to the Rashtrapati Bhawan, that made him beyond vacuous symbolism, appropriations, partisanship, or even personal ambition.
Faring Beyond Symbolism
He wasn’t beholden to anyone but to his own conscience and to the only book that he considered holy ie, the Constitution of India. After all, he had held virtually all prestigious posts possible in politics, academics, and diplomacy. He had been the Vice President of India, Minister in the Central Cabinet, three times consecutive Lok Sabha Member of Parliament, Vice Chancellor of JNU, India’s Ambassador to USA, China, etc, hailed as the 'best diplomat of India’, etc – to then label him as India’s ‘First Dalit’ was true, but incredibly inadequate, as no one had a more accomplished and wholesome resume, before or after him.
Never one to personally invoke, encourage, or deny his 'Dalit’ identity in terms of symbolism – he instead chose far more meaningful ways of transformation by courageous articulations, even to the discomfiture of governments who would have preferred him to stay within the confines of ‘First Dalit’ symbolism, only. He spoke whenever he thought the constitutional spirit was knowingly or unknowingly sought to be diminished at the altar of partisan passions, by anyone.
KR Narayanan worked on the substantiveness of his constitutional duty, and not just on a political title or symbolism bestowed. He believed that as the ultimate authority of the ‘checks-and-balances’ matrix, he had a duty to sound cautionary notes (“within four walls of the constitution”) even to the detriment of drummed-up positivity that the dispensations favour for partisan reasons.
His speech on the 50th Golden Jubilee of Independence had trademark subtlety beyond the celebratory tone, that couldn’t be ignored, "Fifty years into our life in the Republic we find that justice – social, economic and political – remains an unrealized dream for millions of our fellow citizens. The benefits of our economic growth are yet to reach them.”
Later, addressing the nation on the eve of Republic Day, 25 January 2000, when there were murmurs to ‘revisit’ the Constitution, he sagely posited, “Today when there is so much talk about revising the Constitution or even writing a new Constitution, we have to consider whether it is the Constitution that has failed us or whether it is we who have failed the Constitution”.
The equally judicious, then Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, sensed the Presidential messaging and the murmurs ended, without fuss.
KR Narayanan: A Man of Steel And Integrity
The man had too much intellectual and constitutional integrity to simply parrot the handouts given to speak. He would be found working late into the night in his office, chiseling a speech which implicitly or explicitly bore significant thoughts. His banquet speech to then US President Bill Clinton was a masterclass in sending a message of dignity and parity as a proud ‘equal’ as opposed to unilateralism by the Superpower,
“But for us, globalization does not mean the end of history and geography, and of the lively and exciting diversities of the world. As an African statesman has observed to us, the fact that the world is a global village does not mean that it will be run by one village headman”. The dispensation of the day was not exactly delighted, but the vital message was communicated in Narayanan’s inimitable style.
From returning files for ‘reconsideration’ to directly writing letters to the Prime Minister (eg, following the 2002 riots), the citizenry knew that they had a Rashtrapati who was not just the 'First Dalit’, but the defending ‘voice’ of Constitutional propriety.
KR Narayanan knew that telling silence atop Raisina Hill could be dangerous for democracy and that needed to speak up, albeit, with the due sobriety, restraint, and decency that befitted the chair.
President’s Voice Integral to Upholding National Morale
Today the impulse of suggesting the symbolism of 'First’ continues with the affixation of ‘First Tribal’ for the incumbent Rashtrapatiji, but she is certainly so much more than that in life in terms of personal accomplishments, and possibilities.
Coincidentally on the specific ‘Tribal’ aspect too, there was recent dissonance in Manipur entailing tribals, that has sadly lingered too long. There are also many other continuing and regrettable instances of inequities, hubris, and illiberalities that frequently beg the cautionary ‘voice’ of reason and above all, constitutional propriety.
The ‘Idea of India’ insists on the constant intervention of its highest ‘checks-and-balances’ imperatives without fear or favour, not as a distracting or anarchist means, but as the most patriotic duty to hold the powers that be, to the spirit of constitutional accountability and responsibility.
As KR Narayanan’s prescient (if contrarian) words spoken on 50 years of Independence are as relevant (if not more), after crossing 76 years, “Maintaining and strengthening political democracy at various levels has moved to new levels. Conducting successive free and fair elections, evolving and developing institutions like a relatively independent press, functioning opposition parties offering role choice, an independent and high calibre judiciary, free public debate which sometimes comes under assault, defying freedom of expression and creativity and secularism as the basic feature of our constitutional and social wellbeing.”
(The author is a Former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Puducherry. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)