K.R. Narayanan, 1920-2005.
"I see and understand both the symbolic as well as the substantive elements of my life. Sometimes I visualise it as a journey of an individual from a remote village on the sidelines of society to the hub of social standing. But at the same time I also realise that my life encapsulates the ability of the democratic system to accommodate and empower marginalised sections of society."
KOCHERIL Raman Narayanan spoke these words seven years ago when he was asked to appraise his life and its message. The request for a self-appraisal was made by this writer while accompanying the President on a trip to Kerala in August 1998.
The President's functions were in the districts of Kochi, Thrissur and Alappuzha but there were two separate programmes for First Lady Usha Narayanan in Uzhavoor, K.R. Narayanan's native village, during that trip. In one high school she inaugurated a computer centre and in another lower primary school - incidentally named after the most famous son of the village, Narayanan himself - she opened a library and a reading room. Though the President could not attend these functions, it was clear during the conversation that I had with him on the flight from New Delhi to Kochi, that he attached great importance to these programmes.
Narayanan said that he realised the importance of education fairly early in life and that the endless passion for learning had, in his own assessment, shaped his understanding of the world and contributed to his successful social journey. "In many ways," Narayanan said, "learning was a form of liberation." As Narayanan's record shows, the former President was one of the few students from the Dalit Paravan community in the lower and upper primary classes in the Uzhavoor school. Neither the daily 15-kilometre walk to school nor the inability of his family to pay his school fees deterred him.
According to V.K. Madhavankutty, the veteran journalist who died a few days before Narayanan, throughout his long-standing friendship with the former President he had felt that Narayanan's personal and professional lives were dictated by a mindset that drew strength from a combination of his "untouchable" beginnings and a steadfast adherence to the values of learning and objective evaluation. Learning was, for Narayanan, a form of struggle against his social position and at the same time a way of contributing creatively to the very society that, in some ways, discriminated against him.
After Narayanan had demitted the President's office, this writer had an opportunity to see this unique combination at work. Narayanan had just returned after delivering the valedictory address at the World Social Forum meet in Mumbai in January 2004, where he had called on the world to launch struggles against "power corporates and militarism". I had gone to his residence to pay a courtesy call and ended up discussing his "activist" role at the WSF. Narayanan took out a copy of a 1959 lecture delivered by Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and paraphrased it to say that the "world today presents a mixed picture of hope and anguish, of remarkable advances and, at the same time, of inertia, of a new spirit and also the dead hand of the past and of privilege, of an overall and growing unity and many disruptive tendencies. Withal there is a great vitality and a ferment in people's minds and activities, which needs to be channelised in the interests of larger justice". The perspective in Azad's lecture, he said, was something that motivated him throughout his life.
This motivation was evident in his life - whether as career diplomat or as a politician and Minister or as President of India, and even afterwards when he led the life of a private citizen. Concern for the positive and negative trends - particularly those having contemporary or immediate value - in society and the urge to address them in the interest of larger social justice was an abiding element of his personality. His views on the rights and wrongs of the Constitution, the impact of globalisation on the poor and the downtrodden, the atrocities against Dalits, tribal people and women, the concepts of religious tolerance and secularism were born out of these.
Of course, this characteristic was most visible during his presidency, which began in July 1997. Until Narayanan assumed office, Rashtrapati Bhavan was a largely ceremonial address, occupied by men who took care to be on the right side of the government always. There had been times when Presidents such as Zail Singh took on the government on certain issues, but these actions were seen to be rooted more in private and personal equations than in a sense of constitutional properiety. But during Narayanan's tenure the presidential office rose above personal considerations. In effect, by the time his term ended, Narayanan had established certain standards and norms for the office. His style of functioning was enriched by his erudition and sense of justice. Lucid and concrete interpretation of the constitutional strengths and limits of his office tempered with the sense of justice marked his approach to wide-ranging issues as social and communal harmony, empowerment of the oppressed and political stability.
THE issue of political stability came to the fore when he was merely three months into his tenure. The Bharatiya Janata Party-led government in Uttar Pradesh faced a crisis with the departure of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) from the ruling coalition. The Governor lost no time in recommending President's Rule and the Union government accepted his decision. However, Narayanan returned the Union Cabinet's recommendation to impose President's Rule, pointing out that it would be constitutionally improper to rush into a decision like this. His decision was based on a comprehensive study of the 1994 judgment of the Supreme Court in S.R. Bommai vs. the Union of India. The Cabinet, in spite of strong internal pressures, had to withdraw its advice and the Ministry in U.P. was directed to test its strength on the floor of the Assembly.
Narayanan came up with similar presidential intervention in less than a year when the BJP-led government at the Centre sought to dismiss the Rabri Devi-led Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) government in Bihar. The constituents of the Central government, including the BJP and the Janata Dal (United), were on a systematic campaign against the RJD Ministry and sought its dismissal citing the massacre of 30 people in caste-related violence. The State government, anticipating the Centre's move, obtained a vote of confidence in the Assembly. In the background of all this, Narayanan 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. Charting a new course, the President gave detailed explanations for his decisions on issues of constitutional importance.
Narayanan charted yet another path of communicating with the people when he dispensed with the traditional Independence Day address to the nation. He chose the forum of a televised interview - with N. Ram, Editor-in-Chief of The Hindu group of publications - to discuss crucial issues related to the polity and the office of the President. It was in this interview that Narayanan described himself as a "citizen President", whose actions and functions were driven by a concern for the issues of the people.
When he stood in queues to vote in general elections, a few people criticised this practice, saying that a head of state should not be seen taking sides in an election. But the overwhelming response was that the President had done a service to democracy.
His strict adherence to the values of democracy and constitutional propriety was evident on other occasions too. As the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government prepared to review the Constitution, he raised a doubt whether it was "the Constitution that has failed us" or if "we have failed the Constitution". This telling query was followed up by more concrete actions when the NDA government established the National Commission for the Review of the Constitution.
One of the proposals before the Commission was to amend the provision related to universal franchise. Narayanan pointed out that Dr. B.R. Ambedkar and his colleagues in the Constituent Assembly had "consciously rejected the system of restricted franchise and indirect elections embodied in the 1935 Government of India Act". Narayanan also asserted that "it is necessary to look back to this faith when we hear voices pleading for a system of indirect elections".
Narayanan's penchant for anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist and anti-militarist causes did not diminish during his presidency. Talking at a reception during United States President Bill Clinton's visit to India, Narayanan said that the governance of the global village could not be left to a "village headman". He added that "globalisation does not mean the end of history and geography and of the lively and exciting diversities of the world". Narayanan went on to suggest that the global village in "this age of democracy" would be headed not by a "village headman" but by the "global panchayat", loosely symbolised by the United Nations.
Narayanan was of the view that the judicial system should respond to questions of deprivation, social discrimination and justice within its own organisational structure. He argued that the principles of affirmative action should find reflection in judicial appointments also, without compromising on competence and integrity. Narayanan faced much flak for this opinion but he stood his ground. While talking to this correspondent in early 2004, Narayanan was certain that this idea of his would capture the attention and acceptance of the "system" sooner than later.
During the last years of his life, Narayanan was most concerned about two social trends - communal frenzy and the impact of globalisation on the common man. The proactive role he played in compelling the Vajpayee-led government to deploy the Army during the Gujarat riots and his post-presidency statements about the indifference of the Vajpayee government at that period spoke volumes about his concern about growing fundamentalist tendencies. In his Republic Day address in 2001, he referred to the "three-way fast lane of liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation" and emphasised the need to "provide safe pedestrian crossings for the unempowered India".
His historic farewell address of July 24, 2002, exemplified all these concerns of the "citizen President". Apart from issues such as communalism and globalisation, Narayanan made pointed references to development problems, social evils such as dowry harassment, increased sexual harassment and trafficking of girl children. He pointed out that development should not be pursued blindly at the cost of livelihood and living conditions of the people. He argued for adequate compensation for people displaced by big projects.
Looking back at his life one can see that Narayanan, the career diplomat, the Minister, the President and the human being were all different manifestations of the same reality. A reality that was entirely devoted to the concepts of learning, justice and righteousness.