KR Narayanan (1921-2005) and memories of 1984
Indira Gandhi's death is one of my earliest political memories. I was in the fourth standard then. Our classes were suspended, and we were asked to go home. I remember watching her funeral on TV. Only two houses in our neighborhood had television sets. The house two or three blocks away from our house had a black and white TV. The house three more blocks away had a color TV. Incidentally, the professor who used to live there, is presently the chairman of the University Grants Commission. I watched the funeral on the B&W one. I don't remember seeing or reading anything about the Delhi riots. I think the school restarted after a week or so. The school assembly went on for a longer period as a few of the khadi clad teachers were in no mood to end their eulogies. My sister was in the first standard. On the day of her exam, a month later, I forced her to remember whatever little I knew about Mrs. Gandhi's death. I wanted her to be the first in the class even if there were a few questions outside the text book! She did well but she didn't need to know anything about Indira Gandhi; it was enough to know the color of hibiscus and how to add single digit numbers. My sister and I (mostly) studied in the same school, the same college, the same university, and we chose the same subjects. Thanks to my over enthusiasm on the day of her first exam, never later she took any exam related advice from me!
The general election, my first election (!), was during our vacation break. This is the time I really started reading newspapers. We used to subscribe to The Hindu and three or four Malayalam newspapers. I would read only the Malayalam ones. This is also the time we bought our first transistor radio. The idea of elections charmed me. Over the years that charm has only increased. Back then I did the tabulation of results myself -- losers, winners, majority, number crunching, everything. One had to sit next to the radio not to miss the details of the frequent election bulletins. Now Prannoy Roy does the statistics. Following the elections has become more of a laid back affair.
One newly elected MP from Kerala of the 1984 elections seemed to me to be commanding a lot more respect than others. I sensed this over the dining table talks. This MP won from the Ottappalam loksabha constituency, which is part of the Palakkad - Trissur districts of Kerala. His name was K.R. Narayanan. Thus I knew, from very early on, that the elections are not just about numbers. Individuals matter.
That was K.R. Narayanan's first election too! He went on to win from the same constituency in the next two elections as well, in 1989 and 1991. His succeeding elections of course took him to the highest offices of India. He became the Vice President of India in 1992, and in 1997 he was elected the President. A few years after the 1984 elections, I gradually came to know more about K.R. Narayanan. The respect he commanded made perfect sense.
Here was an intellectual of the highest order who reached the higher echelons despite all possible adversities. Getting educated was a struggle. Being an 'untouchable' of course added to the ill effects of poverty. Each new opportunity came with its share of insults and humiliation. His strength of mind and perseverance prevailed in every fight. See this wiki entry for details of his illustrious career; JRD Tata fellowship to LSE, interactions with academicians of the stature of Harold Laski, Friedrick Hayek and Karl Popper, a brilliant diplomatic career, and brief stints in academics at DSE and JNU. The wiki has also a collection of informative links including Narayanan's 1945 interview with Mahatma Gandhi.
His years at the top saw a lot of churning and restructuring in all spheres in India. The economic reforms, the Babri Masjid demolition, the Gujarat riots and other religious and casteist violence, and the Pokhran blasts, immediately come to mind. His stand was always firmly secular and this did not endear himself to the ruling party leaderships of the day. Narayanan tried hard to remind everyone to abide by the constitution, and he did not always restrict himself to be a ceremonial president. When there was a concerted attempt to tamper with the progressive elements of the constitution, the president had famously suggested that we needed to ask ourselves whether the constitution failed us or it's we who failed the constitution. Several commentators agree that Narayanan was a president who realized the power of his post, and he set many positive precedents. Let me just highlight two of the wiki links on Narayanan's presidential years: articles by Sukumar Muralidharan and AG Noorani. Sukumar Muralidharan summarized Narayanan's term well:
... the greatest tribute to his record in office is that he has in difficult times established a pattern of presidential conduct that will remain a standard for reference far into the future. He has never transgressed the constitutional limits of his office, but he has declined to be confined to a purely ceremonial role. He has advised when required, put forward his ideas with appropriate discretion when able, and spoken out at every opportunity for the constitutional values of which he was the chief trustee.
The President has a constitutional role to play. My image of a President before I came here, and before I had any hope of coming here, was that of a rubber-stamp President, to be frank. This is the image I got. But having come here, I find that the image is not quite correct. I thought, I will have lot of time, leisure for reading, writing, walking etc. But somehow I find I can't get it now. So, my image of a President is of a working President, not an executive President, but a working President, and working within the four corners of the Constitution. It gives very little direct power or influence to him to interfere in matters or affect the course of events, but there is a subtle influence of the office of The President on the executive and the other arms of the government and on the public as a whole. It is a position which has to be used with the, what I should say, with a philosophy of indirect approach. There are one or two things, which you can directly do in very critical times. But otherwise, this indirect influence that you can exercise on the affairs of the State is the most important role he can play. And, he can play it successfully only if he is, his ideas and his nature of functioning are seen by the public in tune with their standards.
As the President of India, I had lots of experiences that were full of pain and helplessness.
There were occasions when I could do nothing for people and for the nation. These experiences have pained me a lot. They have depressed me a lot. I have agonized because of the limitations of power. Power and the helplessness surrounding it is a peculiar tragedy, in fact.
But I have never felt guilty about my decisions as President of India. But there were certain decisions of mine, which resulted in big setbacks making me think I should not have taken those decisions. For instance, I returned the Gujral government's request to dissolve the Uttar Pradesh assembly and government. I did it because I felt Constitutionally I was doing the right thing. But the occurrences later on proved that politically what I did was not correct.
V.K. Madhavan Kutty, a veteran Malayalee journalist based in Delhi, [recently] received a phone call from Narayanan. Kutty casually mentioned that a common friend staying with him was unwell. "Within half an hour, Narayanan showed up at my door," says Kutty. Subsequently, a police team came to ensure that Kutty's house was secure. "They said a VIP has to come here," laughs Kutty. "I said the VIP has come and gone."
Update (Nov 11): P. Sainath's tribute to Narayanan in today's The Hindu:
Though he never once mentioned it, just being who and what he was, achieving all he did, trashed the worst stereotypes of caste. This Dalit from Kerala could not find a full time job there despite being a top student, a gold medallist from the University College, Trivandrum. The discrimination he faced in the era of the Travancore royalty was vile and humiliating. Yet, the man who refused to accept his degree certificate in protest would go on to being one of India's finest diplomats and its best President ever. The Merchants of Merit (aka caste hatred) skipped mention of him in their diatribes. For his very existence and stature destroyed their real argument. A casteist denunciation of Dalits as unfit for higher things.
Update (Nov 23): A few more links (thanks P&J and Annu):