Distinction and dignity

Print edition : August 03, 2002

An assessment of K.R. Narayanan's eventful presidential tenure.

K.R. NARAYANAN assumed the presidency in July 1997 after a record of distinguished public service. He also brought a certain symbolism to the job. In the golden jubilee year of India's Independence, the elevation to the highest office in the land of a person born a Dalit was considered a reaffirmation of faith in the values of democracy.

The largely ceremonial office Narayanan entered, was buffeted by political cross-currents. Single party dominance at the Central level was well and truly a thing of the past. Consensus was widely talked about as part of the desiderata of democratic governance, but contention was in reality becoming the norm. Pressures on the fiscal apparatus were squeezing many of the intended beneficiaries out of the coverage of social welfare programmes. And traditionally disempowered sections were beginning to assert their claims to political authority.

Narayanan entered Rashtrapati Bhavan at a time when the longing for a firm hand at the helm was strong. Candidates had stepped forward with their claims to the highest office on the promise that they would use the presidency as a bully pulpit. What fractious politicians needed above all, they argued, was a measure of discipline which the President was ideally situated to instill.

There was little doubt that the advocacy of an assertive presidency was a prescription for endlessly confrontational politics and possible constitutional chaos. Today, with Narayanan having left office to settle down to a life of retirement and reminiscence, 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 parameters for Narayanan's conduct in office were established very early on, just over three months into his tenure. Political instability, which has been endemic in Uttar Pradesh since the demolition of the Babri Masjid, erupted in a crisis when a constituent of the ruling coalition abruptly pulled out, reducing the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Ministry to a minority. Acting in complete disregard of established norms, the Governor recommended that the Union government place the State under President's Rule. While a divided Union Cabinet debated the issue and the BJP threatened mass agitation, Narayanan went straight to the source of the constitutional position: the 1994 judgment of the Supreme Court in S.R. Bommai vs the Union of India.

Digesting a vast and complex judgment in the few hours available, Narayanan learnt that the power to issue a proclamation of President's Rule under Article 356 of the Constitution was not absolute. The President's "satisfaction" that the conditions appropriate for the invocation of Article 356 did exist, was subject to judicial review. Though he was obliged to act on the basis of the Union Cabinet's advice, the judiciary could scrutinise the basis on which the recommendation was arrived at. The presidential proclamation, in turn, would only be deemed to be finally operative when both Houses of Parliament stamped it with their approval. And even in this eventuality, there was a possibility that the judiciary could, on judging that a gross miscarriage has taken place, restore the status quo ante.

At the first available opportunity, Narayanan informed Prime Minister I.K. Gujral that if the Union Cabinet were to send him an advice on President's Rule, he would urge a reconsideration. This was well within the bounds of convention, though the President would be obliged to sign on the dotted line in the event that the Cabinet chose to reaffirm its advice.

Succumbing to insistent pressures from within and without, the Cabinet went ahead with its advice. True to his reading of the Constitution, Narayanan returned it with little delay, plunging an already divided Cabinet into virtual turmoil. But wisdom, even if slow, dawned after this exercise of the President's discretionary powers. The Cabinet withdrew its advice and the Ministry in U.P. was asked, in accordance with the principles laid down in Bommai, to test its strength on the floor of the Legislative Assembly.

Narayanan had acted with complete constitutional rectitude and earned the appreciation of all sections, except those steeped in the most bitter partisanship. But the political disorder in U.P. was not assuaged; it was only prolonged. The following February, the Governor, after a Raj Bhavan conference with the leaders of a number of parties, arbitrarily chose to dismiss the incumbent Ministry and install another in its place. The decision was promptly declared void by the Allahabad High Court, representing the first occasion that the judiciary had overturned gubernatorial discretion on grounds of arbitrariness and mala fide. The matter was sorted out through some adroit political manoeuvres under judicial oversight. Narayanan then sought to invoke the doctrine of the President's "pleasure" to remove the delinquent Governor, but stayed his hand when he was informed that the Union Cabinet's advice, which could be the only basis for his action, would not be tendered.

ANOTHER presidential intervention came later that year, with major positive implications for the pattern of federal relations. Following a caste massacre in Bihar, the BJP-led government at the Centre sought to dismiss the government of Rabri Devi and place the State under President's Rule. Acting to preempt the orchestration of political opinion against her Ministry, the Chief Minister had, just prior to this, obtained a solid vote of confidence from the State legislature. Narayanan again returned the Cabinet's advice for reconsideration, pointing out that the overwhelming evidence that the State government enjoyed the confidence of the legislature could not be disregarded.

The three decisive interventions by Narayanan have undoubtedly played a role in curbing mala fide intrusions in federal relations. That they were undertaken with a surpassing sense of discretion is a tribute to his understanding of constitutionalism.

In the exercise of his ceremonial duties too, President Narayanan showed that he would remain loyal to the principles of the Constitution under which he was elected and the political values that he was nurtured on. Inaugurating the year-long observances of the golden jubilee of the Indian Constitution in 2000, he subtly queried the BJP-led government on its resolve to review the basic law of the Republic. "Is it the Constitution that has failed us," he asked, "or is it we who have failed the Constitution?"

A year later, having had the benefit of studying some of the documents placed before the National Commission for the Review of the Constitution, Narayanan was more direct. In evident alarm at one of the proposals received by the Commission, which spoke of abridging the franchise, he reminded his national audience of the tremendous act of faith that underlay the decision to universalise the franchise: "The founding fathers had the wisdom and foresight not to overemphasise the importance of stability and uniformity in the political system. As Dr. Ambedkar explained in the Constituent Assembly, they preferred more responsibility to stability. That is why they consciously rejected the system of restricted franchise and indirect elections embodied in the 1935 Government of India Act. ... Today it is necessary to look back to this faith when we hear voices pleading for a system of indirect elections."

Another notable instance occurred at the ceremonial banquet for the visiting U.S. President, Bill Clinton, in March 2000. Evidently seeking to administer an antidote to the new disposition of foreign policy, which saw India and the U.S. as natural allies in the New World Order, Narayanan chose to extol the traditional verities of Indian non-alignment. Though the term "global village" had acquired a certain vogue, it was not as if world affairs could entirely be left to the adjudication of a single referee, he said. The governance of the global village in short, could not be left to a "village headman".

"Globalisation", said the President, "does not mean the end of history and geography and of the lively and exciting diversities of the world." It meant, rather, that global governance should be in harmony with the diversities it was required to contend with. Reaching into India's own experience, Narayanan suggested that the global village in "this age of democracy" would be headed not by a "village headman" but by the "global panchayat". And the only such collective body available on the world stage, he concluded, was the United Nations, which needed to be democratised and strengthened.

Zealots of the New World Order sought in vain then to draw the President into controversy, without much success. There were, of course, other instances of political partisans seeking to tar the presidency. One such was the desultory controversy over Narayanan's observations on judicial appointments in January 1999. Reaffirming a position that he had stated in open forums, Narayanan had proposed in signing an order of higher judicial appointments that the judiciary as an institution should, without compromising on competence and integrity, be representative of a wide cross section of society. Sections of the media seized on the President's confidential notings and drummed up a controversy over the alleged effort to "Mandalise" the judiciary. The office of the President said little, and the authors of the mischievous media leak were soon under pressure for the breach of confidentiality. And the final consensus that emerged was that the President was acting well within his constitutional powers of counsel and advice in making his observations.

FURTHER turbulence was in store when the first Vajpayee Ministry was ousted by a solitary vote in April. Given the complexity of the political arithmetic in the Lok Sabha, Narayanan held his counsel, not seeking to hurry the process of dissolving the House or installing a new ministry. He rebuffed the Congress(I)'s importunities with the firm insistence that it should come up with credible evidence of majority support in the House. And the BJP's insistence that it be given a second chance was met with the demand that it should show an "accretion" in its coalition strength since losing a confidence vote in the Lok Sabha.

As the deadlock persisted, Union Minister Murli Manohar Joshi came out with an extraordinary outburst, though one fully consistent with his record of churlish conduct. The office of the President then took the unusual step of directly seeking to keep the public informed. There was no cause to rush into a "hasty decision", said a Rashtrapati Bhavan communique, since the President was considering "all the valuable comments from persons across the political spectrum", and would have to reckon with "past precedents as well as new circumstances, some of which are altogether without earlier paradigms in India".

With neither of the requirements laid down by him being met, President Narayanan summoned Prime Minister Vajpayee to inform him that fresh general elections seemed the only way out of the impasse. The Union Cabinet then sought, disingenuously, to put the onus of the decision on the President. Rather than tender an advice for the dissolution of the House, it worded its resolution in a manner that suggested a presidential directive. This last act of ill grace by the first Vajpayee Ministry may, unfortunately, exert an unhealthy influence in future episodes of political instability at the Centre.

In an Independence Day-eve interview with Frontline Editor N. Ram in 1998, Narayanan said that he saw himself as a "citizen President". This was a perception that he had demonstrated in the general elections earlier that year, when he joined a queue at a Rashtrapati Bhavan polling booth to cast his vote. There were murmurs then of an unseemly demonstration of partisan interest on the part of the head of state. But the message that emerged with greater clarity was the sense of civic responsibility that even the highest in the land cannot absolve himself of.

"Our three-way fast lane of liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation must provide safe pedestrian crossings for the unempowered India also so that it could move towards 'equality of status and opportunity'," said Narayanan in his Republic Day address of 2001. While extolling India's achievements in his ceremonial addresses, he has not glossed over the persistent iniquities. He has with total candour focussed on the atrocities against Dalits, tribal people and women, the increase in cases of sexual harassment, dowry death and trafficking in girl children. Displaying the new sensitivity that has manifested itself in the development dialogue, he has called for justice for those who stand to be displaced by large dams and mining projects, if they cannot be guaranteed full participation. In great measure, his farewell address broadcast on July 24, with its impassioned plea for religious tolerance and secularism, its upholding of the fundamental wisdom and goodness of the common man, was characteristic of the man.

As he retires now to a modest bungalow on Delhi's Prithviraj Road, Narayanan has spelt out his priorities. The first is to bring, along with his wife Usha Narayanan, some order into his new habitation. Then, if his health holds up and his memory serves him well, he would start recording his memoirs. There would be few who would doubt that if they were to see the light of day, K.R. Narayanan's memoirs would be a valuable record of a career of great distinction and dignity.

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