A remarkable life-story

Published : Dec 02, 2005 00:00 IST

K.R. Narayanan as a young diplomat in Tokyo with wife Usha and their daughter. - THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

K.R. Narayanan as a young diplomat in Tokyo with wife Usha and their daughter. - THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

"MY husband and I were on a train journey," Usha Narayanan once recounted, "and at a wayside station I asked him to get me a cup of tea. When he returned, just as the train was steaming out, I saw him standing at the door of the compartment, teacup in one hand, trying busily to get rid of his chappal . `What are you doing?' I asked. "Oh, nothing. I accidentally dropped one of the pair at the platform... I can't get it back... What is the use of my keeping one when the man who finds the first will need both?'"

There was a sense of fun to KRN's use of reason in that episode, a Chaplinesque displacement of dead routine by a human novelty. A similar story has been related of Mahatma Gandhi but that other narration is made of the glowing colours of a Jataka tale. This one is made of lighter, more regular tones. Perhaps KRN had heard of the Gandhi story and been influenced by it, but more likely not. He was just being himself at that station. And he was being logical. That - logic - was a tool in his intellectual armoury but it was not a cold, calculating logic. There was space in it for something beyond the algebraic piling of reason upon reason.

KRN's term at the London School of Economics is deservedly celebrated for the equation he enjoyed with the cerebral but morally intense Harold Laski. Less known is the fact that his studentship at LSE included attending lectures by Karl Popper, Professor of Logic and Scientific Method. KRN related to me this classroom story: Popper was once discussing the value in an `open' society of checks and balances and (as Popper put it) of one `sphere' arriving at an equilibrium with another `sphere' without direct state intervention. And to give his argument a visual correlative, Popper pointed to an empty chair and said, "If you let that chair be, you will be able to sit in it at some point." KRN, who was 26 or 27 then, broke in and said to Popper, "Letting the chair be is all right, but if you or someone were to pick up the chair and hit it on my head, I think I would be entitled to catch it and throw it out of the window." KRN said that to his embarrassment this intervention was greeted with a small applause from others in the class.

While returning from Parliament House with President Narayanan to Rashtrapati Bhavan after his ceremonial opening of the Budget Session, I was privileged to hear from him this account, recounted from memory in almost his exact words: "When I finished with LSE, Laski, of his own, gave me a letter of introduction for Panditji. So on reaching Delhi I sought an appointment with the P.M. I suppose, because I was an Indian student returning home from London, I was given a time-slot. It was here in Parliament House that he met me. We talked for a few minutes about London and things like that and I could soon see that it was time for me to leave. So I said goodbye and as I left the room I handed over the letter from Laski, and stepped out into the great circular corridor outside. When I was half way round, I heard the sound of someone clapping from the direction I had just come. I turned to see Panditji beckoning me to come back. He had opened the letter as I left his room and read it. `Why didn't you give this to me earlier?' `Well, sir, I am sorry. I thought it would be enough if I just handed it over while leaving'. After a few more questions, he asked me to see him again and very soon I found myself entering the Indian Foreign Service."

His colleagues in the Service saw KRN's obvious calibre but blanched at what seemed like the new recruit's Fabian politics. KRN's first posting was in Burma where he was memorably exposed to a visit by a fellow-Keralan, the brilliant historian Sardar K.M. Panikkar, who was at that time India's Ambassador in Beijing. "I was put on duty to look after Panikkar by Ambassador Rauf but I do not think Panikkar took to me," KRN once reminisced, adding, "I must have seemed cocky." While in Rangoon he met his future wife Usha who had just come back from studies in Delhi. The India-returned young lady sought out KRN as a distinguished ex-student of Laski to speak to an academic group in Rangoon. Before long the two had decided on marriage.

A posting to Tokyo was being worked out for KRN at that point and Nehru, with characteristic sensitivity, wanted to know what young Narayanan's bride from Burma, Ma Tint Tint, now renamed Usha, would feel about living in a country that had overrun and occupied her motherland. "That was sad, Panditji," Usha Narayanan replied, "but we must think ahead, look into the future, should we not? We cannot carry in our minds the past, howsoever painful, for all time." That was enough for the Prime Minister. The LSE scholar was launched into a diplomatic career which, taking him through the embassies of India in Bangkok, Ankara, Beijing and Washington, was to bring him to his natural bent for political work, to Parliament, to ministerships, and to the Vice-Presidency and Presidency.

This is not to say that this was a seamless procession on a velvet corridor. KRN's stints in South Block in the Ministry of External Affairs were not an unmixed affair. Posted once as Deputy Secretary in charge of Administration, he was so unhappy that he put in his papers only to be persuaded at Panditji's behest to remain. In charge, later, of the China desk, he told me his analyses of that country's vision of Asia and its role were read "up and down the line of command" by colleagues who used some of his perceptions (even passing them on as their own), but not really letting his recommendations germinate. His closely typed note on the subject is a masterpiece of historical forward motion into policy optionalisations which, hopefully, will one day emerge from archival embargoes to enrich our understanding of Asian dynamics. It is a piece of writing of which Laski and Popper would be proud of.

If KRN spoke of Laski with admiration, he also spoke of Popper with respect. On his visit to London in 1993 as Vice-President of India, among other things, he launched a substantive biography of Laski at the newly set up Nehru Centre where I happened to be working then. He had earlier asked me to send him the manuscript of the book by Isaac Kramnich and Barry Sheerman ("You see, contrary to what people imagine, I was not in Laski's inner circle and so did not know him all that much"). He went through it line by line. Everyone who was anyone in London's `old' Left was at hand to hear this septuagenarian former student of Laski's speak on "the most articulate Englishman of his day" (Aneurin Bevan's phrase). Laski came alive at that meeting addressed by KRN as a representative of what Nehru had described as "the greater minds of England". Among those present in the hall was Lord Listowel who, as Under Secretary of State in August 1947 had `signed away' Britain's Indian possessions.

"Krishna Menon was a regular attendee at the Laskis' Sunday open-house," KRN told his audience, "I was not." He then went on to give not an `insider's' but a political historian's analysis of the man whom Joseph McCarthy had glibly described as "the greatest communist propagandist of our time" but who had not hesitated to advise socialist parties everywhere not to "fuse" with communist organisations because of the contrast (as he put it) between `authoritarian' and `democratic' socialism. Laski had also denounced the overthrow of his friend Jan Masaryk in 1948 by Czech communists "at the order of Moscow". If KRN did not fail his audience that evening, he did not also fail to seek a call during that visit on an ailing Karl Popper. Several `chairs' had been thrown out of the Indian `window' in the years intervening while one chair of some importance had come to be occupied by the classroom barracker of some four decades earlier.

I find it most interesting that Popper, in the year following the KRN visit, managed to travel to Prague despite his indisposition and say at Charles University: "Masaryk's Czechoslovakia... the most open of all societies ever to develop in Europe... was destroyed by the two older of the European open societies [italics mine], Britain and France, under the governments of the appeasers." While "pinkie" Laski (as he was called in the United States) had blamed Moscow, the high priest of an `Open Society' and admirer of Churchill, Karl Popper, was holding not Moscow but London and Paris responsible for the tragic events of Czechoslovakia. This balance and this objectivity, which goes beyond hidebound affiliations, whether of the Left or the Right, Socialist, Conservative or Liberal, have a salience in KRN's life of the mind. Seeing himself as a citizen of the world of the Left, he would not allow himself to be stereotyped into labels or political guilds. He jealously maintained his autonomy of thought. "My having been in the LSE made me suspect in the eyes of the Right but funnily enough it did not help me with the Left either. After getting a seat, and a pretty unsafe one at that, my campaign started, my opposite number from the Left said in his speeches that I was an Anglicised sahib who knew nothing of Kerala, did not eat Malayali food and did not even know how to wear a mundu [dhoti]! So there were problems for me on both sides."

If KRN had his hurts he never converted them into grudges. "If someone insults me, I only feel an infinite pity for him," he told an interviewer once. The remark showed that insults - of differing kinds - were not unfamiliar or rare in his life, even when he was in high office. I can recall not a few former colleagues of his, who I know had felt and acted superior towards one who they regarded as "after all a member of one of our underprivileged", and (as an afterthought) "but bright", coming to see him in Rashtrapati Bhavan in a different frame of mind. KRN met them as a friend and never let memory interfere with his welcome of them. He could be totally objective, overcoming all personal mismatches of temperament or ideology. When E.M.S. Namboodiripad died, KRN visited AKG Bhavan, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) headquarters in Delhi, and wrote in the visitors' book: "EMS was one of the great figures of the twentieth century. A militant nationalist he gave a revolutionary dimension to India's freedom struggle. He was a great thinker, theorist, strategist and mature tactician of the communist movement. His name will ever be remembered by the people of India." I cannot imagine too many of a Congress background saying as much so spontaneously.

Inaugurating the Kerala Legislative complex in Thiruvananthapuram on May 22, 1998, KRN said something of value today: "It is interesting to point out what the late C. Achutha Menon, who presided over the longest coalition government in Kerala, has to say about the conditions of a successful coalition government. He has held that the sine qua non for the success of a coalition government are a carefully worked out common programme and a code of conduct for the Ministers of the government."

Both the teachers of KRN's at LSE, from opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, exercised a lasting if unflaunted influence on their precocious student. In matters pertaining to national politics they doubtless had something to do with KRN's oft-repeated caution against forms of political `stability' which, in his words, "could slip into authoritarian exercise of power". And with his uncompromising championing of the cause of the underprivileged. Two phrases KRN was fond of using, and which he employed tellingly in his Independence Day eve television interview with N. Ram, were "our congealed society" and "our static past". "Social change has not been fast enough, nor fundamental enough so far. And our inherited caste system remains with us... ," he said to Ram. The cause of gender parity remained a great concern of his. Another phrase KRN was fond of was "amazing". An ordinary word, it would retrieve its full lexical vigour when KRN used it. "By some mysterious reason, there is no difficulty for a man [in India] in ill-treating a woman and this is simply amazing."

In international relations, the LSE-trained diplomat's touch could be seen in KRN's major speeches on foreign policy as President. Never more effectively, perhaps, than in his speech at the banquet he hosted for U.S. President Bill Clinton in New Delhi on March 21, 2000. "Mr. President, we do recognise and welcome the fact that the world has been moving inevitably towards a one-world... But, for us, globalisation 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." KRN ended the speech, crafted by him in one inspired sitting, with a quote asking India and the U.S. to remain engaged in frank dialogue "on the lines described by Henry David Thoreau - it takes two to speak the truth, one to speak and another to hear".

KRN was wise when others would have been smart, frank when others would have been cautious. He was available to the people of India, as a "working President" (the description he gave to himself in the interview with Ram) but he was essentially his own friend, counsellor and confidant - with, of course, Usha Narayanan by his side. His inner resources were phenomenal - for reading, contemplating and, in his own special manner, brooding. But when seized of a problem - large or small, in the public domain or very personal - KRN would go into a shell of thought where no one may enter. He was never secretive, but always in need of a space of his own. No one could think for him, much less find the words he needed. He did not seek publicity for his views though he was (to use his own word) amazed how the Indian media seemed to fix its priorities. He was as conservative in his working style as he was radical in his thinking, pen to paper being his writing practice rather than computer keyboarding.

As one of his staff, I had learnt one clue to KRN's working style. If he began a sentence with "Incidentally... " you knew it was not going to be something incidental at all, it was going to be centrally important. "Incidentally," he said to me as I was nearing the end of my term with him and shortly before I left on an assignment in Colombo, "have you kept some notes, some jottings or suchlike of our discussions so that they could be referred to later?" I just shook my head. "I have not, either," he said, "I am the most disorganised person... all my books and papers are jumbled up... some day I must sort them out." KRN's daughters Chitra, herself a senior Indian diplomat and careful observer, and Amrita, both of who have inherited a fine sense of history from their parents, will do that for a grateful posterity. And redeem K.R. Narayanan's remarkable life-story from the ramblings of an itinerant assistant of his like the present writer.

Gopalkrishna Gandhi, who was Secretary to President K.R. Narayanan between 1997 and 2000, is the Governor of West Bengal.

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