(This story was first published on 27 October 2020. It is being reposted from The Quint’s archives on the death anniversary of KR Narayanan.)
India is an ancient and living civilization, where the corridors of time have bestowed sacred and incalculable power onto symbolism. Its modern avatar as a sovereign nation-state has retained and vested that age-old wisdom, morality and consciousness in its constitutional spirit.
The constitution signifies the civilisational continuum and a nobel covenant with the finest instincts of its past and the aspirations for the future.
Within it, the President of India bears the onerous responsibility to preserve, protect and defend it as its first citizen and ‘conscience keeper’. The occupant to the famous residence on the Raisina Hill, ie, Rashtrapati Bhawan, described as: ‘Nature and man, rock and architecture, have rarely collaborated to so fine a purpose’ is the repository of far more than the obvious grandeur and magnificence – he or she swears the unbreakable promise to uphold the dignity, liberality, secularity and inclusivity of the nation.
Befittingly, the nation strives to send its most distinguished, accomplished and revered academician, professional, public servant or suchlike ‘diversities of excellence’ to uphold that vow.
Rarely did all such distinction come wrapped in one person, but it did in the case of President KR Narayanan.
The rumble and tumble of Indian politics has often goaded the preferences for the Rashtrapati to reflect the trysts, sensibilities and urgencies of the political symbolism, and the common tact has been to showcase the ‘first’, therefore the prefix of ‘first Muslim’, ‘first Women’, ‘first Sikh’ etc.
One such inadequate attribution has been on the ‘first Dalit’ President, Narayanan, who was a giant of a man, and so much more!
A 5000-year-old civilization insists on a symbiotic relation between it past and future, wounds and celebrations, deficiencies and abundances and all sorts of throbs that make the ‘Idea of India’ – a seamless tandem of lofty philosophy and democracy.
When a brilliant but socio-economically deprived boy from Uzhavoor village in Kerala dreamt of succeeding in a thatched hut, and then rose to the highest office of the land on undisputed and unmatched merit (the operative word, merit) – the aspired underpinning of the ‘Idea of India’ triumphed!
The erudite Narayanan reflected his journey as one that, “encapsulates the ability of the democratic system to accommodate and empower marginalised sections of society,” underlying his lifelong commitment to uphold the tenets of Indian democracy.
As the nation effectively conducts itself the name of the President, each assent or ‘return of file for reconsideration,’ query or expressed word, is freighted with immeasurable significance for the dispensation of the day, and thereby to the citizenry.
It is incumbent that the President understands the constitutional morality in letter and spirit, has deep introspective capacity and above all, the courage and integrity to ‘speak’ when required, albeit, with the accompanying sobriety that behooves and moves India, forward.
A 'Prodigious' Rise
In the case of Narayanan, his prodigious rise was almost predestined, with scholarship from the House of Tata’s; recommendation of rare talent by the legendary teacher at London School of Economic, Dr Harold Laski; with personal confabulations with Mahatma Gandhi; to being hailed as ‘India’s best diplomat’ by the Statesman, Jawaharlal Nehru.
A curriculum vitae which listed Ambassadorship to the United States, China, United Kingdom, Japan, Turkey and Thailand, and later teaching at Delhi School of Economics and serving as the Vice Chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University.
Narayanan had earned his political, administrative and ‘protocol’ stripes after serving three successive terms as a Member of Parliament, Ministership in the Central Government and by also holding the office of the Vice President of India, before getting elected to the President’s responsibility, with a record 95 percent vote in the electoral college.
The sagacious, humble and seemingly very quiet President worked tirelessly (as he did all his life), but ‘within the four corners of the constitution’. His deliberately measured tone singularly demolished the notions of a ‘rubber-stamp’ and he demonstrated a cultural shift to a ‘Working President’ or ‘Citizen President’ that was done in the inimitably Narayanan way of making a point, gently and in a dignified manner, but surely.
‘Independence’ and ‘Constitutional Morality’
The institution of Presidentship has seen varying degrees of public perception that were contextualised to the symbolic prefixes, from yields to dissonances, from flamboyance to austerity, from outreaches to even silences – but the signature Narayanan leitmotif was ‘independence’ and ‘constitutional morality’.
Narayanan often ‘spoke’ like none before him (or after him), but without compromising the constitutional sobriety. He was too much of an intellectual to be pre-fed speeches, he wrote his own drafts late into the night, weighing and chiseling each word to signal its import and impact, delicately yet tellingly.
He opined and diverged from precedents, stood in line to exercise his franchise, took moral stand by ‘returning files’, invoked his professional diplomatese with China or in making his loaded point to Bill Clinton (to the discomfiture of the government), as also expressing concern on the Gujarat communal riots – but the President who ‘spoke’ his mind and pushed the boundaries, also recognised his limitations by saying:
“As the President of India, I had lots of experiences that were full of pain and helplessness.”
Nevertheless, Narayanan had unmistakably steered the destiny and public consciousness through the Nuclear Tests, Kargil, Gujarat riots, Coalition politics etc, towards an era that started India’s shining period of socio-economic growth and societal heal.
Because, the lights were on till late nights on the Raisina Hill and the ‘conscience keeper’ walked the fine line of constitutional duties, the ‘Idea of India’ thrived.
Not Given to Empty Posturing
A providential meeting between the then Minister of State for External Affairs with the author (then serving as the Military, Naval and Air Attaché to the East-South Africa region), occurred in late 80’s.
Almost a decade later and a day before taking over command of an Army Division in the Kashmir Valley, a serendipitous call from the PMO tasking the author to meet the new Supreme Commander, President KR Narayanan, was to be the beginning of serving ‘Sir’ as his Military Secretary to the President.
Always inquisitive beyond perfunctory requirements, he would often start ‘So General, tell me…’ – it was a tumultuous and challenging period with ‘Sir’ picking our minds on the security imperatives accompanying Nuclear tests, Kargil etc, and then forming his own mind, as he saw it from a perspective that was simply unmatched in its expanse.
Narayanan was not just intellectually elevated, but as a person, he wasn’t given to empty posturing, supplications or inelegance – he had a sense of history, purpose and ‘chance’, towards which he posited rights of Dalits, Tribals, Women, minorities, etc, in a restorative, transformational and sustainable manner.
The contours of constitution were wide enough to embrace all and ‘correct’ the incorrect – the man of letters sought evolution and not revolution.
His elevation to the highest office of land may have fulfilled Mahatma Gandhi’s vision for India, but the humanist always chose to go further and not to be a mute spectator to any erosion of his beloved constitution.
27 October marks the symbolic 100th centenary of Narayanan’s birth – but beyond symbols, the lights that were on till late night at the office on Raisina Hill illuminated ‘hope’ for the countless voiceless, shirtless and roofless. Narayanan testified, personified and enhanced the ‘Idea of India’.
Rest in peace Sir, it was a singular honour to serve you!
(Lt Gen Bhopinder Singh (Retd) is a Former Lt Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands & 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.)