A citizen and a President

Print edition : August 29, 1998

President K.R. Narayanan's hour-long conversation with N. Ram, broadcast on Independence Day eve, was marked by introspection and a studied assessment of India's first 51 years of Independence.

INDEPENDENCE DAY speeches often appear to be photocopies of speeches made a year earlier, with a few modifications for colour rather than substance. What distinguished President K.R. Narayanan's interview to N. Ram, broadcast on national public television and radio on the last day of India's 51st year of Independence, was its sincerity of purpose. Pompous declarations of national greatness were replaced with introspection and a studied assessment of India's first 51 years of Independence. Perhaps the reason for this was that the signal interview was not, as most people had expected, an 'official' dialogue. Ram made no effort to obscure his priorities as citizen and journalist, making transparent his political position. President Narayanan, in turn, engaged frontally with the questions, not from the pedestal of his metaphorical ceremonial throne, but as the President of a democratic nation, accountable to the citizens he holds office on behalf of.

The first signs that the interview marked a departure from dry convention emerged early on. President Narayanan made it clear that while India's achievements over the last 51 years had been significant, the challenges were enormous. While democracy had established itself, "it is facing problems at every stage." "I don't think that we can rest on our oars in the maintenance of democracy. Critical times are facing us. There are, there will be crises that we will have to face." While India's parliamentary system could not have survived without mass support, it could function "only in an atmosphere of social and economic progress, and great equality." Here too, the President said, there had been achievements. "But the march of society, of social change, has not been fast enough, nor fundamental enough so far." This, he argued, was because while "progressive movement was taking place, there was also, concurrently, some sort of counter-revolution resisting it."

President Narayanan proceeded to engage with the most difficult terrain on India's political landscape with candour. Among the less noticed but important of these themes to emerge in the interview was a discussion of the process of economic liberalisation set in place by the regime of Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao from 1991. Ram initiated this exchange on the structural adjustment programme, pointing out that the "recent economic history of the less developed countries would seem to suggest that such policies take a toll: they put pressure on the sovereignty of the respective relevant countries, they have the effect of worsening the conditions of the life and work of the working people and the poor, and also the growth implications are questionable."

N. Ram in conversation with President K.R. Narayanan.-

The President, Ram pointed out, had spoken on these issues in the past, and asked for his assessment of the "experience of economic liberalisation in India at this juncture."

The President's response was nuanced. "We have to adopt policies," he said, "dictated by the circumstances and necessities of the times." "We in India, as a result of planned economic development - not central planning, but mixed planning, mixed economy - we have moved to a stage of partial maturity of the economy, when we needed new forms of management, new forms of the expression of the spirit of enterprise, so that the economy can move forward. The compulsion to liberalisation and globalisation arose from this." "This is why," the President explained, "we say that India's liberalisation is an irreversible process." At once, the President cautioned that "in a vast country, with millions of people, and poverty rampant, we cannot liberalise recklessly, in such a way that the balance of society is upset and while some sections would flourish, make profits, the rest of the people would be left without employment and be helpless." Also, the idea of a borderless world, fashionable in some circles, was a "very dangerous philosophy which may suit the most developed and powerful countries of the world and not those who are small and developing."

WHAT was perhaps most important about the President's response to questions on structural adjustment was that while he defended the process of liberalisation, this affirmation was not underpinned by an attack on economic planning. Both paradigms appeared, in the President's view, to be responses to historically specific circumstances. As interesting was an earlier comment by the President that land reform, had it been carried out in all the States rather than just in a few after Independence, "would have laid sure foundations of an economic miracle."

"We have to give a sense of economic liberation to the masses," President Narayanan argued, "and for that, I think the basic thing we have done or we attempted to do, in the beginning -- and we have not yet completed that process -- is that of land reform." The President cited the examples of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan where land reform had preceded their economic boom. He said that the growth of a "new class of landlords" made bringing about land reform extremely difficult now.

India's nuclear policy and the linked issue of its relationship with China constituted the next difficult area that the interview traversed. Ram made explicit to television and radio audiences the fact that "as a citizen and as journalist" he was firmly opposed to the Pokhran test and nuclear weaponisation. He asked if in the President's view India had "lost the high moral and political ground in world affairs" as a result of the Pokhran test. President Narayanan responded by suggesting that it would be wrong for India to "claim to occupy a higher moral ground than any other country." While India had a tradition of "high philosophy and great moral principles," he argued, "so had Europe." "Christ preached all these principles. But they still develop nuclear weapons and pile up such weapons. But nobody tells them that they have fallen from the high moral ground."

"I don't think nuclear weapons are necessary for the world," the President clarified. "They should be abolished." "But as a pragmatist, I would say that they be abolished not in parts but wholly, because the weapons in the hands of any one country alone or a group of countries could be dangerous for the world as a whole." In the President's view, the nuclear tests had given a "very salutary shock to the complacency of the great powers and the world opinion which was moulded by them." Neither did he appear to believe that the fallout from the Pokhran tests, and Pakistan's own tests at Chagai, had jeopardised peace in South Asia. "Now that both countries have these weapons, it would drive home to both the inescapable need to settle the differences between them peacefully and through negotiations."

If President Narayanan's position on India's nuclear policy fell very much within the establishment paradigm on the issue, elements of his remarks suggested delicate dissent from the official rhetoric. His answer to questions was free of bombast, avoiding, for example, cliched claims that the nuclear tests marked a signal achievement for Indian science. There was no polemic, either, on the nuclear tests being a matter for national pride or even self-congratulation.

Similarly, the President remained distant from the hawkish anti-China rhetoric that has emanated from the Union Government before and after the Pokhran tests. The President characterised the problems between India and China as "temporary". "There has been no change in India's need for living in harmony and in cooperation with all our neighbours including Pakistan, and of course our big neighbour China, and others. This is India's need, if I may say so, and India's policy has also been in that direction. And I feel that there is mutuality of interest between India and China in being friends, cooperating with each other fully." There were, he conceded, "problems between us," but he affirmed that "these problems can be solved and we have been attempting to solve it, both countries, and that process will, I think, go on."

Indeed, the President's thoughtful remarks on China appear to have had the important consequence of breaking diplomatic ice. China's Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhu Bangzao welcomed President Narayanan's characterisation of the problems between India and China as "temporary". China, he said, wanted India to take the initiative to normalise relations between the two countries, suggesting perhaps that the President's gesture was a step in that direction. The Foreign Ministry official also pointed to Narayanan's remark that India's policies towards China had not changed. "It is the set policy of the Chinese Government," Bangzao said, "to develop good neighbourly and friendly relations with India on the basis of the five principles of co-existence." Clearly, the experience gathered in his years as a diplomat still stands President Narayanan in good stead. Whether the endorsement given to his position by China will now be used by the Union Government to undo the damage to bilateral relations, however, remains to be seen.

Interestingly, Ram happened to be in China while the hour-long conversation with the President was being telecast and broadcast. Zhu Bangzao, hosting a dinner for the Indian journalist, explained at some length China's policy attitude towards India, its desire for good relations, and the measures that needed to be taken. (The next issue of Frontline will carry a special feature on the present and future of bilateral relations.)

CERTAIN areas of the interview attracted some murmurs in certain circles. One was the President's firm opposition to communalism, which some observers interpreted as criticism of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition at the Centre. This criticism is somewhat difficult to comprehend. The President's remarks came in response to a question by Ram, which pointed to his having described (as Vice-President and Chairman of the Rajya Sabha) the demolition of the Babri Masjid as the greatest tragedy India had faced since Mahatma Gandhi's assassination. Ram asked whether we could be "reasonably confident that we can bring this phenomenon under control." The President responded straightforwardly to the question on the calamity of the demolition of the Babri Masjid and on the toll taken by communalism as a political mobilisation strategy: "I think we can bring it under control. In retrospect, I feel that we could have brought the earlier tragedy under control. But communal mobilisation in the long run will not succeed in India because Indian society cannot be mobilised communally." He pointed to the empirical and well-documented fact that in the last Lok Sabha elections, "communities, religious communities, castes did not vote solidly for one party." "As time goes on," the President said, "it will become less and less appealing to the people. This is the trend as I see it."

Given that the demolition of the Babri Masjid was a violation of court orders, and that criminal cases related to the act of vandalism are pending, it is difficult to see how the President's remarks could be characterised as anything other than appropriate and timely.

Similar critical murmurs on the President's supposed affirmation of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru's vision of India also seem to rest on misrepresentation of what the President said. Asked whether "the Nehruvian dream of 'the ending of poverty and ignorance and inequality of opportunity"' was within reach, the President replied that this had become "a pungent necessity, inescapable necessity". It is hard to see what reasonable grounds there might be for disagreement.

There were also some murmurs over the President's description of his role as that of a "working President". Contextually, this formulation was used by President Narayanan to distinguish his time in Rashtrapati Bhavan from his earlier conception of the job as "that of a rubber-stamp President." "I thought, I will have a 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." What this meant, President Narayanan left in no doubt. The Constitution, he noted, "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 shall I say, with a philosophy of indirect approach." This influence, the President emphasised, had to be "in tune with the popular expectations." Responding to a specific question, President Narayanan cited his decision to return the proclamation of President's rule in Uttar Pradesh to the I.K. Gujral Government for reconsideration. This move, he said, mirrored "people's conception of what is right." He also complimented the government of the day for being "very understanding."

On Article 356, President Narayanan came up with a clear and important statement of his constitutional understanding in the wake of the Supreme Court's majority judgment in the Bommai case. Responding to a specific question on his unprecedented action on Uttar Pradesh, he said that "my constitutional understanding was that the imposition of Article 356 can be done only if it can be conclusively proved that in a State the constitutional machinery has broken down." This clearing of the air by the highest constitutional functionary has political significance at a time the polity faces great instability.

Ironically, there was no comment on the one issue on which the President took an explicit political stand. This was on the issue of women's rights, and the Women's Reservation Bill. Ram's question about India's failure to address social discrimination against women, the adverse sex ratio, the problem of millions of "missing women" in India's demographic profile and major political resistance to the passage of the Women's Reservation Bill, received a firm answer. "Well, in spite of this backward movement sometimes, the movement is going forward, essentially. And it's a very, very intricate problem. By some mysterious reason, there is no difficulty for a man in ill-treating a woman, and this is something amazing. Everybody loves his mother, sisters and relatives, etc., but still, with all this, there is this callous attitude and ill-treatment of women. So women's movements are necessary. One thing which is forgotten in India is the transformation of the attitude of men. It is in this field that active work has to be done. We all preach to women that they should assert themselves. But on the other hand we don't tell sufficiently early, strongly, to the male that they should behave well, their attitudes should change." "I have no doubt," the President asserted, "that even the women's reservation question you mentioned will finally be adopted."

The President was as emphatic on areas of failure in independent India, which Ram, quoting the eminent economist Amartya Sen, described as "disastrous areas of social development." Discussing the failure to ensure universal primary education, the President first pointed out that literacy rates had indeed risen from 18 per cent in 1947 to 52 per cent today. Then, he suggested, citizens had indeed "voted with sufficient knowledge of affairs, of their interests." "But," he made clear, "this is no substitute for education, and we have to have a full formal education for all our people and what I find sad is that it is an eminently practicable thing to do." "In a matter of five years," he said unequivocally, "India could be made literate." The President saw health care and access to food as related areas. "The Kerala example has shown that education is the key to health and to social progress." When asked why the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and other disadvantaged groups were systematically worse off than other communities in the matter of social development and education, the President suggested that the process of change had been excruciatingly slow. "But it is something which is going on, and something which is almost spectacular in certain sectors today - the assertion of the backward classes, the Scheduled Castes, of women."

MUCH of the criticism directed at President Narayanan's decision to give an interview appears to be the result of lack of comprehension of the background in which it was done, as well as its purpose. Many people appear to have forgotten that the President chose not to give the traditional August 14 broadcast address last year also. This was because he believed that the address would simply be a tedious anticipation of the speech he would give at midnight in the Central Hall of Parliament. This year too the President was asked by the Union Government to give an Independence Day address to Parliament, and he believed that this rendered the August 14 speech redundant. Since Doordarshan had reserved a 40-minute slot for the occasion, officials suggested that the slot be filled with either a documentary on the President or some related content. The President's staff, informed sources told Frontline, suggested the possibility of an informal conversation, and this was accepted by all concerned.

What President Narayanan's widely followed conversation has done is to make a significant contribution to democracy. India has still to free itself from the symbols and practices of its colonial past. Judges and advocates wear black robes and suits in the sweltering heat of the summer; Army regiments celebrate battles fought for the Empire; Lutyens' New Delhi continues to be off bounds for ordinary citizens. Too many people, evidently, confused the role of the President in a democratic, modern India, with that of the Monarch. "The President should not be interrogated," one commentator said of the interview before its telecast and broadcast. He was right. But a structured conversation is not an interrogation. In placing before the nation his vision of where we have come from and where we are going, President Narayanan has made a signal contribution to making the state accountable to India's people.

The full text of the interview and the August 15 address by the President in Parliament are available at the Rashtrapati Bhavan Web site https://alfa.nic.in/rb/welcome.htm

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